It has been over two years since Boris Johnson made his speech in 2020, announcing that the UK was going into lockdown with immediate effect. In protecting the NHS from being overrun, the lockdown brought new challenges to people. Not being able to see friends and family or go to work meant that people were forced to spend more time with themselves.
For someone struggling with addiction, spending time alone with nothing to do and no one to confide in can create a problem. Financial stress increases, employment instability rises, temptation becomes all the more intense. It is no surprise then, that with increased substance misuse comes exacerbated mental health issues.
For example, according to a recent study on alcohol and substance use, those who increased alcohol use during the initial lockdown period were those with higher levels of depression. The pressures of raising a family and supporting them during the pandemic was also possibly a contributing factor. The report suggests that those with children had a higher rate of increasing alcohol consumption during the lockdown than those that did not.
According to this governmental report, there has also been a rise in the number of adults who have been in contact with drug and alcohol services between April 2020 and March 2021. This suggests that the lockdown not only had an effect on the consumption of legal drugs, such as alcohol, but also increased the number of individuals misusing other licit and illicit substances.
It is possible then, that as substance misuse rates have increased through the lockdown, so have the indirect effects of substance use, such as poorer job performance. Consequently, job performance has suffered in those who have increased their substance misuse and those who have relapsed.
Drugs and Job Performance
There are emerging reports stating that there has been a large increase in substance misuse compared to pre-pandemic levels. For example, a study suggests that on the week that lockdown in the UK began, alcohol sales increased by 67%. It is not yet known, since the government lifted lockdowns in the UK, whether the trend is declining, or whether it continues to grow at such a rapid pace.
It is commonly understood that substance misuse – whether that is using legally obtained drugs like alcohol or illicitly purchased substances such as heroin – can have an impact on productivity, absenteeism, and presenteeism (see addiction in the workplace). These figures highlight that businesses may experience more drug-related performance issues than they have done before. Many people who have trouble with substance abuse may worry that their use, and its impact on their performance at work, could be a sure-fire way of getting sacked. However, it is not as straightforward as that.
Addiction is now understood to be a disease. Therefore, people with drug addictions are finally being treated with the empathy and compassion needed when battling the condition. When it comes to drug use within the context of work, this is being reflected in law. An employer has a general duty, under the Health and Safety at Work Act, to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their employees.
This act means that if you engage in drug use, and your employer is aware of the situation, they must take your welfare into account, as well as the welfare of those that you work with. Therefore, law requires your employer to treat your drug dependence as a sickness. This means that, as an employee, you are entitled to the exact same rights and treatment as anyone else who is struggling with a medical or psychological condition.
There are also good reasons for employers to treat addiction with the empathy and care that it deserves. Employers who help employees who are at an early stage of their drug use/addiction can actually save time and money. The costs are expensive when involved with recruiting and training a replacement, rather than allowing the employee to have time off to seek expert treatment.
Commonly, people assume that if an employer carries out a drug test on an employee, and that test comes back positive, that the employer can fire the employee with immediate effect. This is not necessarily the case. Although an employee who engages in drug use leaves themselves exposed to being fired on grounds of capability, conduct, or “some other substantial reason”, the decision to dismiss that individual is not automatic.
There are some relevant arguments to consider when dismissing an employee for their “outside of work” drug taking. If the effects of drugs have either a minimal effect, or no effect on the employee’s ability to carry out their job, then a dismissal can be hard to justify. However, if the employee’s drug use has an impact on an employer’s trust and confidence in that employee, or if their drug use damages an employer’s reputation, dismissal may be justified.
With the rise in addiction and drug use during the pandemic, more and more cases of drug-related employee/employer discussions will likely occur. It is critical, then, if you are struggling with an addiction, to be open about your drug use. The longer you let your addiction go on untreated, the more likely it will seep into your work life. Conversely, the sooner you get help, the easier it will be to find lasting recovery successfully.