Substance abuse is a perpetual problem that continues to linger in many businesses. Aside from high-risk industries, however, UK law puts the onus on firms to devise and develop their own drug and alcohol policies.
It’s telling, then, that only 21% of UK employers currently have a strict drug and alcohol policy in place. One problem could well be that businesses don’t know where to start. Developing a robust and legally defensible drug and alcohol policy that not only satisfies the company’s legal and insurance requirements but also takes into account employee health and well-being is not easy.
So where do you begin? How is it possible to implement real change and a workable testing policy without causing major disruption? And what hurdles might companies face when devising up a reliable and fair drug and alcohol policy?
Consultation between all stakeholders (management/unions/staff committees) is an essential starting point that will prevent potential conflict and misunderstanding between employer and employee down the line. To offer amnesty for staff members with concerns over the new policy, employers should plan and implement an Employee Assistance Programme.
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This programme will not only provide answers to any questions employees might have about the policy, but could also offer potential rehabilitation and support. It will also deal with dismissals where necessary.
Businesses will require two clear and bespoke documents, accessible to all members of staff for complete transparency. A Substance and Alcohol Misuse Policy (SAMP) will outline the organisation’s principles regarding substance misuse; what it will and will not tolerate from employees and the testing and disciplinary procedures it will apply to those who are suspected and found guilty.
The SAMP will outline the timing and the reasoning behind the tests and will determine whether narrow window testing like oral fluid (saliva) (used to detect substances used in the last 24 hours to a week) or wide window testing like hair testing (used to identify substances used in the previous three months) methods are used. A Programme of Testing (POT) will also be required. This document will outline the testing schedule and should not only match the needs of the business and fulfil the conditions required by the SAMP but should be legally defensible.
Scheduling education and awareness sessions on drug testing and drug use can be remarkably helpful, as quite often you’ll find that people’s opinions are based on myth or they are unaware of current drug trends, their effects and legislation. Setting expectations and providing up-to-date education are helpful when trying to implement a drug and alcohol programme or policy.
It also pays to get yourself up-to-date with the latest drugs trends - the use and availability of New Psychoactive Substances, for instance - and the changes to the criminality relating to possession and use. Make sure you’re fully educated around not only the latest drugs on the market but their effects from both a physiological and legal perspective.
When to test
Knowing when to test your employees is perhaps even more crucial than knowing how to test them. Ultimately, any business will need to weigh the pros and cons of any testing period before committing. Pre-employment drug screening might ensure new employees are drug-free, but it might also dissuade others from applying in the first place. Random testing, meanwhile, might be the fairest way to ensure your existing employees are toeing the line, but it can also sow the seeds of mistrust.
Many businesses only instigate tests when they feel they have cause to consider there might be a problem - after an accident or if an employee is acting out of character, for example. Ultimately, when you choose to conduct your screening procedures will depend on a number of factors - your existing experience with testing, the size of your company, its organisational needs and, of course, your staff. It will also depend on the types of testing you choose to utilise.
Types of testing
Careful consideration of which types of testing you will be implementing is vital. Choose the most appropriate sample medium (i.e. hair, oral fluid (saliva) or urine) based on cost, legality, effectiveness and speed. The most common type of test in the UK is currently a point of care (POC) urine testing, as it is inexpensive, non-invasive and provides instant results. The final point is perhaps key here, as the longer it takes for a sample to be collected, tested and analysed, the more it costs your business.
Oral fluid (saliva) and blood offer alternative options. Blood testing, meanwhile, while more accurate, is an invasive procedure that is generally not even considered unless there are verifiable suspicions to act on.
Oral fluid (saliva) testing, meanwhile, offers the immediacy urine, but is in general correlated with blood concentrations, so relating the presence and concentration is more precise than with urine testing.
Point of Care - POC testing might have a reputation for fast results, but it’s not without its problems. POC tests are inconclusive by their very nature and only screen for a limited number of substances. Also, the results they provide might be instantaneous, but they will only offer a presumed positive that will require further corroboration back at the lab - which means more time and more cost, with employees often put on paid leave in the interim. Indeed, the only disciplinary action an employer can currently take as a result of a positive POC test is suspension.
Back to Lab - A BTL test is more conclusive and is required in order for employers to take proper disciplinary action or dismissal. Whilst urine tests can be sent back to the lab, it is possible for employees to cheat the test and it will only test for substances that have entered their systems in the last week.
Hair testing, however, is not only the most accurate and conclusive test but tracks substance use over the past 3 months, which means they will help to establish a broader pattern of use. Hair tests can’t be conducted on site, however, so will need to be sent back to the lab, which is often wrongly perceived as a laborious process. However, hair samples can now be turned around within 48 hours by Cansford and it’s a method that is not only more reliable, but more simple and cost-effective than its reputation might suggest.
Finally, remember, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to drug and alcohol testing. Just as each business is unique, so will be the best testing solutions. So, don’t be afraid to take your time in developing your company’s policy. It can be a delicate subject and you don’t want to alienate any staff members or rush into a policy that might damage morale and profitability.
While some US businesses might be relaxing their drug testing policies (particularly when it comes to marijuana, which is now legal in some states), in the UK, more industries are waking up to the benefits that testing can offer them.
Over 14 million sick days occur in the UK alone from alcohol and drug-related issues and 60% of employers have experienced alcohol-related workplace problems, which are not only disruptive but could be detrimental to the company image.
Implementing a safe, secure and reliable drug testing programme can be simple, cost-effective and unobtrusive, as long as you know the right steps and the right precautions to take and the right way to bring your employees on board.