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Information of interest to our Clients and for the industry


The common problem with a positive drug and alcohol test which no one talks about

In light of October being Mental Health Awareness Month in New South Wales, we thought we’d shed some light on the often common reason as to why an employee may return a positive drug or alcohol result.

People use, and can become dependant on, drugs and alcohol for a number of reasons; enjoyment, to relax, inclusion within a group, curiosity, to minimise physical or psychological pain or as a coping or escape mechanism. And it’s important to note that 50% of people globally who are affected by substance abuse, also suffer from mental health disorders. But with the two being closely related, we are presented with a chicken and the egg type scenario; what came first?

Often when a person suffers with a mental health condition, they use substances to ease their symptoms temporarily. On the other hand, regular drug use can trigger the first symptoms of mental health illnesses, make symptoms worse or treatment less effective. Some people use substances because they believe that they will feel better in the short term, however it can actually leave them feeling worse, anxious, agitated, unmotivated or moody. And left untreated, both mental health issues and drug or alcohol addiction can get in the way of an individual’s ability to function at work, maintain relationships, handle difficult situations and sustain a functional and stable home life.

One in five Australian’s is currently experiencing a mental health condition equating to 20% of the country’s population.

So what should you do if a worker gets a positive result? As an Employer with a duty of care, the key is to ensure that you understand the driver behind the drug use, and explore it further to determine if something else may be a contributing factor. Did the worker have a big night out with their mate which is the reason for the positive result, or did they recently suffer a personal loss which they’re struggling to cope with?

It is not the role of the employer or manager to diagnose a possible substance or dependency problem, nor pass blame or immediately discipline… after all, you don’t know if a positive result has come from medication prescribed for a mental health condition, and disciplinary action may just make the situation worse for you and the worker. It is your role to identify if an employee is impaired, unable to do their job safely, and take the appropriate steps as per the organisation’s Drug and Alcohol Policy.

Among recent drinkers (2016) 1 in 6 (17.4%) put themselves or others at risk of harm while under the influence of alcohol in the last 12 months

So how should you support a worker with a positive result when you think there may be associated mental health issues?

  1. Employ a Drug and Alcohol Management Specialist to conduct an interview, provide guidance and make recommendations. Their expertise will ensure objectivity and legal compliance, as well as provide some reassurance to the worker. They will also be able to put together a tailored Drug and Alcohol Management Plan (DAMP) which will assess the worker’s physical, psychological and psycho-social state, and determine reasonable treatment and action moving forward.
  2. Provide opportunities for open communication and respond to their concerns compassionately. Ensure the worker feels heard, respect their privacy and confidentiality and take notes so that you can then take action.
  3. Determine what temporary changes can be made to the worker’s role or workplace to accommodate their physical and psychological needs. Do they need some time off, can they work from home, how can their workload be reduced?
  4. Provide support by offering contact details for community support groups, Employee Assistance Programs, GP or health care professional, online resources or other mental health or drug and alcohol support networks.
  5. Share your story if you’ve gone through something similar and you’re confident in sharing your experience. Be careful not to compare or say things like ‘I know what you’re going through’; simply show them that they are not alone on their journey.
  6. Let them know that they have your support in their recovery. The best treatment for co-occurring disorders is to treat them simultaneously which may mean the employee has a long road ahead of them. Let them know you’ll support them in any way you can from a work perspective. Remember – your role is to support the person be successful at work, not anywhere else.

Among recent drinkers (2016) 1 in 10 (9%) had injured themselves or someone else because of their drinking in their lifetime

When all is said and done, when mental health is concerned, the best approach is to be preventative rather than reactive. By recognising the symptoms of poor mental health and taking action, you will contribute to a positive health culture, and may prevent bigger issues such as drug and alcohol misuse at work from occurring. And if it does, if you understand the reason behind the substance abuse, you can choose the best way to respond. 

Be a proactive Employer by utilising a Drug and Alcohol Management Specialist who can assist you in identifying the risks. When addressing issues with educational understanding, the worker will be protected from further risk of deterioration, you’ll protect the business from potential unfair treatment claims, and you will retain a good employee with experience in their role.

Related reading:

You suspect a worker is under the influence, what’s next

What to do when an employee fails a drug test