Problem drinking post-lockdown – Why workplace safety should be a priority for employers as COVID-19 restrictions lift

As the UK emerges from COVID-19 restrictions, it’s undoubtedly a time to feel thankful. The successful vaccination programme is providing good protection against serious illness from the virus, enabling bars, pubs and clubs to reopen.

But while there’s no harm in celebrating freedom, there is a danger of lurching from one health crisis to another.

Latest research shows that alcohol and drug addiction levels have risen during the pandemic, with problem drinking at home a particular issue.1 The UN 2021 World Drug Report also revealed the COVID pandemic has fuelled a major increase in drug use, with online sales on the dark web making it easier than ever to buy illegal substances.2

As furloughed or home-working staff gradually return to their offices and workplaces, employers must remember they have a legal duty to protect employees’ health, safety and welfare. It’s vital to watch out for the warning signs of alcohol or drugs misuse, not only to support staff members who may be struggling, but to protect the workforce as a whole.

Workplace alcohol and drug testing – why screening helps

The vast majority of people respect alcohol and celebrate in a sensible manner. But employers need to be aware of the very real risk of staff taking things too far – in terms of the over-consumption of alcohol as well as the use of recreational drugs like cannabis and cocaine.

Weekend and shift workers – especially those who start work very early in the morning – could still be under the influence when they arrive at work after a night out. If drugs or alcohol are still in the system, no amount of coffee or paracetamol can disguise the fact that the employee could be a liability to themselves and to those working around them, particularly in safety-critical industries such as transport and construction.

Alcohol and drug testing is a sensible way to protect staff while ensuring that the duty of care legislation in the Health and Safety at Work Act is adhered to. Whether regular or random testing, when sensitively carried out it can provide a boost to company morale, enabling employers to support staff in the long-term.

Freedom from furlough

With the easing of restrictions also comes the fact that many employees on furlough are now heading back to the workplace, having been furloughed for a significant period of time. Although furlough has been a broadly successful initiative, it has left many employees at home with little to do.

Extra caution should be taken with returning staff members who have potentially developed a reliance on alcohol or drugs, either to help fill their time at home or deal with the stress the last year has presented.

COVID-safe testing in the workplace

With the correct hygiene procedures in place, it’s possible to test employees for drugs and alcohol, as defined by a workplace policy, in a COVID safe way. It’s worth remembering that workplace drug and alcohol testing protects both employees, employers and wider society. It also reduces the impact on other healthcare services by preventing accidents and other consequences of alcohol or drug abuse.

But setting up an in-house testing policy for the first time can seem daunting for employers. Workplace training courses led by alcohol-testing experts offer accredited guidance and a flexible range of options to suit individual organisations.

AlcoDigital is a leading training company in this field, offering face-to-face sessions all over the UK as well as online Zoom seminars, with training in the use of breathalysers, vehicle interlocks and drug analysers.

Suzannah Robin, Sales and Training Director at AlcoDigital, said: ‘We all welcome the lifting of COVID restrictions and for many of us it’s an opportunity to catch up with friends and enjoy delayed celebrations such as weddings or milestone birthdays.

‘But unfortunately the signs are that some people will struggle to keep their drinking in check, and others will have developed a drugs habit during lockdown. If these problems are carried into the workplace, the consequences can be dire. We’d urge all employers to take a fresh look at their overall health and safety policy and consider whether in-house testing is the best way manage drug or alcohol misuse.’