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Taking Action on Alcohol-related Problems in the Workplace: Lessons Learned

I Introduction

The use of alcohol and other drugs by employees can, and often does, have a negative impact on work performance. It also presents a potentially serious safety risk for sectors of the economy such as transportation and construction. Various studies have linked alcohol and other drugs with a long list of problems. These include tardiness, absenteeism and increased sick days; poor decision-making; errors in production or service delivery; unsafe work practices; and many more issues. Substance abuse problems are estimated to cost Ontario workplaces $1.6 billion per year in lost productivity (Shain, 1997).

What can be done? One of the most effective ways to reduce alcohol-related problems is through policy development. The Alcohol Policy Network defines policy simply as "what governments or institutions do - - or don't do -- about a particular problem and the conditions that give rise to it."

At the broadest level, policies that affect the physical, social and economic availability of alcohol can have a significant impact on drinking rates and problems in society. If alcohol is widely available, or if existing controls are ineffective, poorly enforced or weakened, resulting problems will likely be felt in all sectors of the community, including the workplace.

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II The role of workplace policies

While broad-based policies are the most effective way to reduce and prevent problems that spill over into the workplace, they will have a bigger impact if complemented and reinforced by initiatives that address factors within the employer's control. For example

* the availability, promotion and consumption of alcohol on the job, on company property or at company events; or

* the expectations of workers in safety-sensitive positions and the extent to which health and safety regulations are enforced.

A workplace alcohol policy may be defined as a formal set of principles, guidelines and rules governing the job-related behaviour of directors, employers, employees, contractors, volunteers, agents and others with regard to the use, misuse and abuse of alcohol. Often it is part of a broader policy covering the use of other psychoactive substances, including tobacco, illicit drugs, over-the-counter medication and prescription drugs. A workplace is defined as a site where the consumption of alcohol or other drugs occurs and/or where the negative consequences of consumption are felt.

Workplace alcohol policies generally serve four goals:

* to increase productivity;

* to reduce safety risks;

* to improve employee health; and

* to reduce employer liability.

According to the US Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), successful policies include

1. A rationale (why the policy was developed, how it was developed and what it is meant to accomplish)

2. Policy application (information on who the policy applies to and under what circumstances. For example will it cover volunteers and board members or only paid staff? Will it cover alcohol and other drug use during work hours or on company property only? Or will it also include drinking at social events organized by the company?)

3. Expectations and prohibitions (what substances and behaviours are unacceptable, supports available from the company and the community to help those covered by the policy to comply)

4. Consequences (progressive penalties, procedures for dealing with incidents and appeal process, how principles of confidentiality, fairness, consistency and access to needed supports will be respected)

5. Implementation Considerations (how the policy will be implemented and evaluated, the role of various people/departments, process for reviewing the policy, including the date of the next review.)

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III A comprehensive approach

Ideally workplace alcohol and other drug policies should be part of a comprehensive health promotion program that also includes 1) employee education and awareness; 2) training and ongoing support for supervisors, managers and union representatives; and 3) a comprehensive employee assistance program that supports all workers, not just those experiencing problems.

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IV Lessons from the Field

Efforts to address alcohol-related issues at workplaces have yielded valuable insights into the principles of effective policy development. Below are twelve recommendations for the planning and implementation of workplace policies based on the experiences -- some successful, some not -- of colleagues in the field.

1. Take the time to create a policy that's right for your workplace. Don't just copy or adopt the policy of another company.

Learn from what others have done. But at the same time recognize that successful workplace policies are designed to meet the needs of individual companies, and conform with their distinct organizational cultures. Ensuring that your policy is 'tailor made' for your particular workplace will make it easier to communicate its objectives and requirements to employees, foster compliance, and defend it if challenged.

2. Never develop a policy without the support of top management.

Successful policies need a strong commitment from the top-level management in a workplace to support their full implementation. Ideally, management must not only be informed, but should also be involved in policy decisions. Otherwise the effectiveness of the policy will be seriously undermined and you may find yourself with an excellent policy that managers ignore or that the organization forgets to implement.

3. Never develop a policy in isolation.

An effective policy development process educates stakeholders about the issues. It also ensures that the final product reflects the consensus, goodwill, and good ideas of all affected. Alcohol and drug abuse issues are difficult to deal with at the best of times. In workplaces, action is often spurred by an "incident," or legislative change. This means that not everyone will see a need for a policy and quite a few may actively resist its development. Take the time to involve people at all levels of the organization in your work and be prepared to listen and act on their concerns and their advice. In unionized workplaces, it is particularly important to ensure that the policy process be consistent with good labour relations principles.

4. Get expert advice.

Developing a good policy may seem like a big job but it doesn't have to be, particularly if you get good advice from key people at different stages in the process. For example, a lawyer or consultant with a proven track record in workplace alcohol and other drug issues can be invaluable in industries where drug testing is more prevalent or the worksite is larger and more complex.

5. Ensure your policy covers all employees rather than a particular group or class of personnel.

Alcohol and drug-related problems can be found among all types of occupations. Basic policy standards should therefore apply to everyone in your workplace. Additional requirements for groups in safety-sensitive positions, for example, can also be developed. However, they should not drive or comprise your entire policy.

6. Respect employee confidentiality.

Confidentiality is the cornerstone of a successful EAP. It should only be breached by the EAP counsellor under very specific conditions established under the policy and in accepted EAP practices. In addition, the results of drug or alcohol testing should only be available on a "need to know" basis. Companies should minimize any unwarranted intrusion into employees' privacy and stress the importance of maintaining responsibility to managers and supervisors.

7. Ensure testing programs meet appropriate standards.

Alcohol and drug testing is not a panacea. For workplaces that use it, however, anything short of the highest standards, including trained collectors, a certified laboratory, and an experienced medical review, can seriously compromise the integrity of your workplace policy and may lead to a legal challenge.

8. Enforce your policies in a fair and consistent manner.

In Ontario, workplaces have considerable latitude when developing alcohol and drug policies. Once the policy is adopted, however, it should be followed closely and consistently applied and enforced. Failure to do so will ultimately lead to decreased acceptance of the policy by employees and increased challenges to the policy.

9. Make employee education and supervisor training an ongoing part of policy implementation.

These are two critical components of a successful workplace policy. Employees should have information about alcohol and drugs, their effects on performance, how to access assistance, and what the company policy is. Supervisors, or those responsible for carrying out the policy, should have information about their specific responsibilities and how to support implementation.

To increase awareness of, and support for, a workplace alcohol policy it's essential that promotional activities be carried out to explain the policy to employees. These should be conducted on an ongoing basis to ensure that everyone is aware of the policy and understands the consequences for non-compliance. There are many ways to reach workers. Below are a few:

* paycheck stuffers;

* newsletter articles;

* lunch-and-learn sessions;

* health fairs;

* interactive displays;

* posters and brochures in areas in high traffic areas such as the kitchen or washrooms;

* effective use of email and the corporate intranet/website; and

* informational meetings, consultation sessions and roundtable discussions.

10. Address the broader social and environmental factors contributing to alcohol-related problems in the workplace.

An effective alcohol policy can help to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related problems in the workplace. But it's also important to address the social and environmental factors that may contribute to employee stress and substance abuse problems. The following are a few examples of health promoting policies and supports:

* reduction of organizational stress or safety hazards;

* providing safety training;

* introducing flexible work hours;

* improving employer-employee communication;

* job sharing;

* improving equipment maintenance;

* clean air policy;

* training supervisors to be more sensitive to employee concerns;

* part-time employment arrangements;

* increased decision making by employees in the organization of work;

* health-related courses and seminars (fitness, weight, stress, smoking, etc.);

* space for an employee fitness facility; and

* monthly health information bulletins/magazines.

11. Don't stop at policy development.

Developing a workplace policy is not an end -- it's a beginning. Some organizations spend an enormous amount of time, money and energy developing a perfect policy that never gets properly implemented. Map out a realistic long-term implementation plan and stick to it. It will pay off in the long-run.

12. Be patient!

Change doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes it doesn't appear to be happening at all. Goals are important but so too is the pace of change. Sometimes when results are evident in a short space of time companies lose interest in implementation, figuring the problem has been solved. Alcohol and other drug-related issues wane and peak but are unlikely to go away entirely. Workplaces that take a long-term view are more likely to see measurable change in worker attitudes and practices and productivity gains as a result of healthier, safer, more motivated workforce.

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This section includes a useful list of sources, resources and organizations that may be able to assist your implementation efforts. More detail on each resource is available in the Resources message OHPE Bulletin #233.2 Nov 9, 2001.

A. Training for Managers, Supervisors & Event Organizers

B. Employee Awareness and Assistance

C. Program Planning & Organizational Change

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A. Training for Managers, Supervisors & Event Organizers

1) The Drug-Free Workplace: A Guide for Supervisors and Managers

This practical resource reviews the responsibilities of supervisors and managers and ways to identify and deal with employee performance problems. Although targeted to an American audience, the information is applicable to any setting.

2) Ontario Human Rights Commission Publications

Particularly recommended are the Commission's Policy on Drug and Alcohol Testing, Policy and Guidelines on Disability and the Duty to Accommodate, and Human Rights at Work.

3) Smart Serve Library

Includes information on host liability, responsible service tips, and links to training videos and packages for alcohol servers, event organizers and others.

4) Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario

See alcohol and publications sections for tip sheets on liability, recognizing intoxication, special occasion permits, alcohol advertising and promotions, and more.

5) the Human Internet

This extensive US-based website is a guide to over 50,000 subjects. The information is wide ranging, well-written and well-organized. The section on alcoholism is extensive and includes good information on policy development and links to online drinking assessment tools, resources.

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B. Employee Awareness and Assistance

1) Alcohol-Related Public Education Materials Database

Searchable database contains order information and, in some cases, direct links to free or low-cost fact sheets, brochures, posters, guides, and other materials appropriate for use in Ontario. Materials cover topics such as drinking and driving, alcohol and pregnancy, low-risk drinking, alcohol and youth, and more.

2) Liquor Control Board of Ontario

Click on About LCBO, Social Responsibility Section for alcohol-free mocktail recipes and information on seasonal public awareness campaigns.

3) ABC Fact Sheets from the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Awareness Commission

4) Canadian Health Network

National bilingual website full of user-friendly information and links to over 10,000 internet resources.

5) Employee Assistance Programs and Addictions Services in Canada


Searchable databases on the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse website and the Drug and Alcohol Registry of Treatment at

6) How to start and maintain a self-help group

User-friendly guide on organizing a self-help group and links to nearly 500 groups province-wide.

7) Low-risk Drinking Guidelines website

Bilingual website maintained by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Association of Local Public Health Agencies and the Ontario Public Health Association. Features basic information and campaign resources on low-risk drinking. Appropriate for workers as well as those coordinating alcohol-related awareness events.

8) MagellanAssist

Magellan Behavioral Health is a leading provider of workplace health services in the US. The site contains self-assessment tools related to substance abuse and mental health, information on health and wellness, tips for workers, and much more. Due to differences between the Canadian and US approaches to workplace alcohol and other issues, information related to drug testing should be used with caution.

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C. Program Planning & Organizational Change

1) Health Communication Tools and Resources

The Health Communication Unit website includes links to newsletter, workshop materials, practical guides, and external resources.

2) Organizational development publications from the Ontario Prevention Clearinghouse

Covers topics such as the learning organization, creating a climate for change, leadership, and much more.

3) The Change Management Resource Library from the US Quality Leadership Centre

Includes links and full-text articles on a wide range of work-related change management issues. While much of the content is based on the experiences of large US corporations, many of the models, primers, and tool kits may also be applied to alcohol policy development in the workplace.

4) APOLNET website

Particularly recommended are the Policy-making and Workplace Policy Action Packs, which feature many of the documents mentioned in previous sections of this guide, and the Resources Section, which includes links to free searchable online databases, best practice documents, sample policy collection, scholarly publications, email discussion lists, and public education materials.

5) WorkNet from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Devoted exclusively to workplace alcohol and other drug issues. It includes upcoming events, statistics, recent court cases, research papers and codes of practice related to alcohol and other drug testing, searchable databases of employee assistance programs, treatment services, and much more.

6) Employers Online

Comprehensive site maintained by the Government of Canada. Includes vast array of information and links on human resource issues useful to small and medium-sized businesses. Section on occupational health and safety includes links to Health Canada's Workplace Health Page, information on selecting EAP providers, workplace health assessment tools, safety training, and legislative and regulatory requirements.