Tackling toxicity at work with workplace testing

Gail Evans, Alphabiolabs

By Gail Evans, Technical Trainer at AlphaBiolabs
Last reviewed: 18/05/2018

A toxic work environment is defined as an environment that negatively impacts the viability of an organisation. It can be considered toxic if it is ineffective as well as destructive to its employees [1]. The term has come to prominence recently with media stories covering bullying, sexual harassment and other forms of manipulation used for personal gain in the workplace. Substance misuse in the workplace should also be added to this list: drug and alcohol abuse can not only damage your business, it can be toxic. As well as causing accidents, a loss in productivity, absenteeism and days off ill, substance misuse can result in an intimidating work environment.
So, what can you do to build a culture of positive workplace behaviour and eradicate drugs and alcohol from your organisation? Here are five steps to limit this toxicity.

1. Lead by example

Most organisations would agree that their employees are their greatest asset. As such, management should demonstrate a duty of care by offering a clearly defined policy to deal with the issue of substance abuse. Managers who demonstrate their commitment to a positive, fair work environment – with a zero-tolerance attitude to toxic behaviour – are more likely to influence their employees and inspire good behaviour.

All members of staff benefit from a better workplace culture. An aggressive or hostile work environment can lead to poor productivity and feelings of depression, stress and anxiety, which can lead to absenteeism, days off ill, and even resignation. Prospective employees will also be attracted to a more positive workplace culture.

A company can outline its approach to substance misuse with a robust drug and alcohol testing policy backed up by a comprehensive workplace testing programme. With such a framework in operation, systems are in place to help the people in need, whilst contributing to the development of a positive and successful workforce. Should a problem arise, it is important that senior staff are supportive and show compassion. Where possible, assistance should be offered, such as counselling, treatment and education.

2. Firm foundation

A company drug and alcohol testing policy is vital. This effectively tells employees what is and isn’t permissible. The consequences of breaking the rules or failing a drugs and/or alcohol test will be clearly stipulated. In this way, all members of staff know where they stand and it establishes a company ethos for everyone to adhere to. In addition, a robust policy can have a knock-on effect on other types of associated behaviours. Make it known: inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated.

As well as encouraging your staff to follow them, the existence of rules can also act as a deterrent to future employees. Discouraging substance abusers from applying for a position at your company will reduce your potential for revenue loss and legal problems.

A drug and alcohol testing policy is usually an official document, which forms parts of a company’s overall Health & Safety policy. It could be included as part of a Staff Handbook or be specified in employee contracts. The policy provides clear and concise instructions for both employer and employee on what constitutes non-compliance of policy and how substance abuse issues will be handled. It also details how staff members with a problem can seek assistance.

It is important that your policy document is comprehensive, specific and succinct. Salient points should be covered in detail but try and keep the document as clear and concise as possible. It needs to outline the objective of the policy, specify who it applies to, detail which substances it covers, and explain what happens if employees contravene the conditions of the policy.

The outcome of a failed workplace drug test or alcohol test could mean disciplinary action, dismissal or therapy. If the company has a zero-tolerance policy, just the positive test could be seen as gross misconduct resulting in immediate dismissal or suspension while there is an investigation. This is most likely to be the case in safety-critical positions, such as driving or operating machinery.

The policy should encourage any employee with a substance dependency problem or other addiction to inform their Line Manager in confidence. Disciplinary action may be suspended whilst appropriate treatment and/or rehabilitation is sought.

3. Testing times

Your comprehensive workplace drug and alcohol policy should include full details of your company’s testing programme. Implementing a successful testing policy will not only increase productivity, decrease costs and maintain the reputation of the company, but it will also mean that your business is operating lawfully to ensure the safety of your employees and the general public under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (among others).

Figures released last year show that 8.5% of adults aged 16–59 took drugs. This equates to around 2.8 million people [2]. As such, workplace drug testing is on the rise. It’s obviously essential for some industry recommendations and insurance policies to demand employees in safety-critical roles to undertake routine drug testing and alcohol testing.

There are various types of testing services to suit all forms of business that can protect employees, as well as your company.

Random drug and alcohol testing

Random testing is effective in reducing accidents and incidents, ill health, absenteeism and litigation, all of which have an impact on business productivity. As such, this is one of the best ways to ensure that your employees are working in a safe environment. Employees in safety-critical roles, such as operating heavy machinery, are most likely to benefit from tailor-made random testing programmes. Your drug and alcohol testing policy should make it clear to employees that random testing can be undertaken with short or no notice. Exactly who is to be tested will be unknown by the workforce. This greatly reduces the chances of employees using tactics to avoid testing, or change their habits in time to escape a positive result during the testing detection time if they are abusing drugs and/or alcohol.

For cause drug and alcohol testing

For cause testing is used when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that there is a misuse of drugs or alcohol in the workplace. This form of testing is sometimes referred to as with-cause testing. It is important to bear in mind that employers are legally obliged to take measures to protect the safety of employees concerned, members of staff and the general public if they are suspicious that individuals may be unfit to work due to drugs or alcohol misuse (Misuse of Drugs Act 1971).

Pre employment testing services

Pre employment testing for drugs and alcohol is increasingly common in the workplace and is particularly important during the recruitment process to ensure the future safety of the company and its employees. This form of testing is especially important for safety critical positions, where lack of concentration or intoxication can cause major accidents or health and safety breaches. Pre employment testing is also increasingly being used when recruiting senior management positions. When you’re investing a lot of money to get quality staff, you need to make sure they’re reliable and problem-free.

Post rehab and return to work testing

Post rehabilitation testing can be used to check if employees are misusing drugs or alcohol after a previous confirmed positive drug or alcohol test. This kind of test is also referred to as return-to-work testing or follow-up testing, and is often used as part of an employee’s reintegration to work. If an employee has previously misused drugs or alcohol, post-rehabilitation testing can be used as part of their support plan and give them a second chance.

4. Keep it real

Reviewing your workplace drug and alcohol testing policy on a regular basis – at least every 12 months – will ensure details and practices are kept up-to-date and legally sound. An out-of-date policy could end up being useless if it doesn’t comply with new legislation or procedural changes.

Similarly, keeping your employees up-to-date with the company’s drug and alcohol testing policy is important to maintain awareness and educate them of both the company’s obligations and their individual responsibilities concerning drugs and alcohol. Training can reduce any ambiguity about what is unacceptable and provide guidance on what action will be taken if someone is involved with, or accused of, drug or alcohol misuse within the workplace. This training can be customised for the industry sector and designed to be relevant for employees at all levels within the business.

A training programme for managers or supervisors could help them recognise the signs of substance misuse. They need to know what to do if they suspect an employee is misusing drugs and/or alcohol, or if they are approached by an employee who declares a problem. A positive drug or alcohol test may indicate a deeper problem for your employee. Try and establish what is causing him or her to act in this way. Financial pressures and excessive workloads are key factors in substance abuse by employees, with more and more high-performing, fully functioning employees harbouring secret addictions.

Awareness training could form part of your induction process for new employees. It could also be rolled out to all members of staff, whether by group sessions or seminars etc, to explain your drugs policy.

5. Reap the benefits

Drug and alcohol misuse isn’t always the cause of a toxic workplace, but it can aggravate a destructive behaviour. Drugs or alcohol that are available in the workplace may pressurise individuals into taking them, while others may feel victimised as a result. Employees will resent the need to cover for unwell or absent colleagues. The end product is a spiralling dysfunctional culture of increased risks, loss of profits and long-lasting damage to the company’s reputation.

A drug and alcohol testing policy can raise awareness of any concerns. It can encourage individuals to take action to correct any problems they have. By reducing problems at work the knock-on effect is less illness and staff turnover and increased productivity.

“Not only does a drug and alcohol testing policy give employees clear guidance on what they can and can’t do, it details what support is available to them, as well as which disciplinary procedures apply”, says Claire Leech, AlphaBiolabs’ Workplace Testing Sales Executive. “Importantly, it also provides Managers with clear guidance on which procedures they should follow.”

By implementing a comprehensive drug and alcohol testing policy for your company, it is possible to create a positive workplace culture that all stakeholders can be proud of.

In summary

  • Define the company’s stance in relation to drugs and alcohol in a formal testing policyEnsure that your policy document is comprehensive, specific and concise
  • Random workplace testing can identify drug and/or alcohol abusers before an accident occurs and sanction the necessary treatment.
  • For cause testing is used when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that there is a misuse of drugs or alcohol in the workplace.
  • Pre employment  testing is particularly important during the recruitment process to ensure the future safet y of the company and its employees.Post rehabilitation testing can check if employees are misusing drugs or alcohol after a previous confirmed positive drug or alcohol test.
  • A positive drug or alcohol test may indicate a deeper problem. Try and establish the cause of the addiction.Keep your drug and alcohol policy up to date to ensure it complies with new legislation or procedural changes.
  • Training sessions for your staff can reinforce both the company’s obligations and their individual responsibilities concerning drugs and alcohol.

[1] Harder H, Rash J and Wagner S. Mental illness in the workplace: psychological disability management. Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2014:207–234 (Chapter 8: Toxic work environment).

[2] Drug Misuse: Findings from the 2016/17 Crime Survey for England and Wales Statistical Bulletin 11/17. July 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/642738/drug-misuse-2017-hosb1117.pdf

AlphaBiolabs can create a bespoke workplace drug and alcohol testing programme for your business and implement this policy for a fully managed solution. For information on any of our workplace testing services, call us on 0333 600 1300, email at info@alphabiolabs.com, or visit our website at www.alphabiolabs.co.uk.

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Gail Evans, AlphaBiolabs

Gail Evans

Technical Trainer at AlphaBiolabs

A professionally-trained forensic scientist, Gail joined AlphaBiolabs in 2012 and holds the role of Technical Trainer.

Her day-to-day responsibilities include delivering in-depth training sessions both internally and externally, covering DNA, drug, and alcohol testing.

Before joining the company, Gail was a practicing forensic scientist with 25 years’ experience working for the Forensic Science Service, attending scenes of crime, and analysing physical and biological material with potential evidential value.

Gail also holds qualifications in chemistry and is a Lead Auditor for the ISO 9001 standard, the international standard for quality management.

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