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Difficult Employee Series: The User

Problem employees

The modern workplace is fraught with complexities. It’s an ecosystem where individuals with different backgrounds, talents, and challenges come together to achieve common goals. However, amidst this diversity, certain challenges can arise, such as the presence of problem employees who are struggling with substance abuse issues. Alcohol and drug abuse not only have detrimental effects on individual wellbeing but also significantly impact colleagues and overall performance. In this country, a strong emphasis is placed on both mental health and employment law, which means addressing substance abuse in the workplace requires a balanced and compassionate approach.

Drug and alcohol abuse: an alarming reality

Substance abuse, encompassing alcohol and drug misuse, is a pressing concern in workplaces across the UK. According to UK Addiction Treatment Centres, up to 3 million of workers go to work under the influence of substances each year, while substance abuse is linked to 60% of all poor performances and 40% of industrial accidents at work[1] . These statistics underscore the relevance and urgency of addressing substance abuse within the context of problem employees.

What is the impact of drugs and alcohol on colleagues and personal performance?

The presence of a substance-abusing employee can have far-reaching consequences on colleagues, the overall work environment – and not least themselves. One of the most immediate impacts is the compromised safety of everyone in the workplace. Impaired judgment and motor skills due to alcohol and drug use increase the risk of accidents and injuries, endangering not only the problem employee but also those around them. As previously mentioned, a staggering 40% of all industrial accidents are related to substance abuse. In factory situations, with many moving mechanical parts, partaking in the abuse of substances can have a huge, if not fatal, impact.

Moreover, a substance-abusing colleague can create a hostile and uncomfortable work environment. Erratic behaviour, absenteeism, and decreased productivity can lead to strained relationships and heightened stress levels among coworkers. This not only hampers teamwork and collaboration but also adversely affects the mental well-being of those forced to navigate this challenging situation.

Mental Health and Employment Law Considerations in the UK

The UK has made significant strides in recognising the importance of mental health and the role it plays in the workplace. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a legal duty on employers to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their employees, which extends to protecting mental health[2]. The Equality Act 2010 further mandates that employers make reasonable adjustments to support employees with disabilities, including mental health conditions. Substance abuse, which is so often intertwined with mental health issues, falls within this purview[3].

In this context, the UK government’s “Thriving at Work” report underscores the need for employers to address mental health and substance abuse challenges in the workplace[4]. The report emphasizes a “whole organisation” approach, where employers create an open and supportive environment that reduces stigma around mental health issues and encourages early intervention. This aligns with the sentiment of treating substance abuse as a health concern as opposed to a disciplinary issue.

How to Handle Substance-Abusing Employees

Effectively addressing employees grappling with substance abuse issues necessitates a multifaceted approach, one that is both compassionate to the individual and compliant with UK employment law. Firstly, employers should prioritise prevention through comprehensive alcohol and drug policies. Such policies should include clear guidelines on acceptable behaviour, consequences of violation, and access to support services. Educating employees about these policies and fostering awareness around mental health can contribute to a healthier workplace culture. HR company HR:4UK offers comprehensive, off-the-shelf drug and alcohol policies which are designed to help businesses effectively set the guidelines for their employees. You can find more about such policies here.

Early intervention is crucial. If an employer suspects or identifies an employee with substance abuse issues, open dialogue should be encouraged. Employers can refer employees to employee assistance programs (EAPs) or recommend seeking professional help. An empathetic approach that emphasises the employee’s well-being can facilitate better understanding and cooperation, as well as lead to better outcomes. After all, disciplinaries and dismissals should be a last resort.

Employers should collaborate with healthcare professionals and specialists to ensure that adequate support is provided. This could involve implementing reasonable adjustments in line with the Equality Act to accommodate the employee’s recovery journey. In some cases, a temporary leave of absence might be necessary to focus on treatment and rehabilitation.

Balancing Compassion and Compliance

The challenge for employers lies in balancing compassion with compliance. Dismissing a problem employee solely due to substance abuse may breach employment laws, leading to legal ramifications. Instead, a more prudent approach is to explore alternatives such as temporary leave, adjusting workloads or modifying roles to accommodate the employee’s recovery process.

However, employers must also be prepared to take appropriate disciplinary action when the problem employee’s behaviour poses a threat to themselves, colleagues or the organisation as a whole. The decision to terminate an employee should be well-documented and based on a fair assessment of the situation. This helps to ensure compliance with employment laws and minimises the risk of legal disputes.


Substance abuse among employees is a complex problem that demands a systemic and empathetic response. The burden falls to employers to create a supportive environment that addresses substance abuse within the context of both individual wellbeing and organisational success. By implementing well-defined alcohol and drug policies, promoting awareness and early intervention and seeking collaborative solutions, employers can strike a balance between compassion and compliance, fostering a workplace where both employees and the organisation can thrive. For help with your business, contact HR:4UK on [email protected] or call 01455 444 222.


[1] UK Addiction Treatment Centres. (2018). The Hidden Cost of Substance Abuse in the UK. https://www.ukat.co.uk/blog/substance-abuse/hidden-cost-substance-abuse-uk-infographic/

[2] Health and Safety Executive. (1974). Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.https://www.hse.gov.uk/legislation/hswa.htm

[3] UK Government. (2010). Equality Act 2010. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents

[4] Lord Stevenson, D. & Farmer, P. (26th October 2017). Thriving at Work: A Review of Mental Health and Employers. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/thriving-at-work-a-review-of-mental-health-and-employers

Angela Clay

A qualified employment law solicitor and our managing director, Angela has unparalleled legal expertise and decades of experience and knowledge to draw from. She’s a passionate speaker and writer that loves to keep employers updated with upcoming changes to legislation, and is a regular guest speaker on BBC Leicester Radio.