Do workplace alcohol and drug policies improve employee health and wellbeing and reduce harm?

October 2015
Interest in the workplace as a setting to address a range of health issues continues to grow both internationally and within Australia.

The recent publication of NCETA’s paper on alcohol and other drug (AOD)-related absenteeism in the workplace1, reported in the August Connections newsletter, attracted considerable media interest. The mounting community and organisational interest in this matter demonstrates the extent to which AOD-related harm in the workplace is a highly topical issue for employers and the broader community.

Quantifying the extent and cost of AOD-related absenteeism in the workplace also provides an evidence-based rationale for utilising the workplace as a prevention and intervention setting. When almost 11.5 million work days are lost due to employee AOD use each year, costing businesses more than $3 billion per year, it produces a clear economic, health and wellbeing, and social imperative for implementing effective workplace responses.

NCETA recently published a paper2 that provides evidence that workplace strategies can be effective in minimising AOD-related harm among Australian employees. This paper reports a study that utilised National Drug Strategy Household Survey data to examine the relationship between workplace AOD policies and employees’ AOD consumption patterns. It is the only Australian research undertaken on this issue to date, and results demonstrate that workplace policies are associated with lower levels of risky alcohol and drug use among employed Australians.

Importantly, the findings indicated that:

  • having a formal workplace policy in place was associated with lower levels of risky drinking;
  • having a comprehensive workplace policy in place (including a range of strategies such as education, training, and drug testing) was associated with lower levels of drug use;
  • workplace alcohol/drug testing on its own appeared to have no relationship with employees’ alcohol or drug use.

While the cross-sectional design of this study limits any conclusions concerning causality, findings provide evidence of the importance of the workplace as a setting for preventing alcohol and drug related problems, and identify types of policies and strategies that appear effective. 

The Workplace Reduction in Alcohol-related Harm Project (WRAHP) that NCETA is currently undertaking, in collaboration with LeeJenn Health consultants and South East Business Networks, and funded by VicHealth, demonstrates that effective workplace responses can not only reduce risky AOD use among employees but may also result in a range of other positive outcomes for worker and workplace wellbeing. Early results from an evaluation of this pilot project indicate effective responses can also:

  • improve alcohol-related health and safety attitudes;
  • increase levels of workplace communication and trust;
  • increase access to community AOD and other health and social service providers.

The comprehensive program of workplace research that NCETA has undertaken over the past 10 years provides substantial evidence that the workplace is an appropriate and effective prevention and intervention setting for targeting AOD-related harm. For most drug types, the overwhelming majority of users are employed and therefore the workplace provides ready access to large numbers of people who may be experiencing AOD-related harm, but would not normally seek help. Moreover, cost effective strategies can be achieved by utilising existing workplace health, safety, and worker wellbeing frameworks and strategies. 

Workplace responses can be used as a prevention strategy to raise awareness of harms associated with risky AOD use. Workplace responses can also be used as an early intervention strategy to prevent infrequent or occasional employee AOD use from escalating to more frequent use associated with dependence and greater harms. For employees whose patterns of consumption indicate dependence, workplace responses can be used to provide a pathway into treatment. In the latter case, workplace responses may overcome many of the common barriers to treatment, including: drug use not perceived as a problem; lack of motivation to seek help; work commitments; and lack of support. Individuals who face dismissal as a result of a workplace policy breach also face the reality that their drug use is creating a problem and the threat of dismissal can be an effective motivator to seek help. In addition, effective workplace AOD policies can contain provision of leave for employees to attend treatment and return-to-work support strategies.

NCETA plans to remain at the forefront of research and practice in this area. We will endeavour to continue to expand our program of workplace research in order to further build the evidence-base, and use this evidence to further inform policy and practice concerning the workplace as an AOD-related harm prevention and intervention setting. 

  1. Roche, A., Pidd, K., & Kostadinov, V. (2015). Alcohol- and drug-related absenteeism: A costly problem. Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health. DOI: 10.1111/1753-6405.12414.
  2. Pidd, K., Kostadinov, V., & Roche, A. (2015). Do workplace policies work? An examination of the relationship between AOD policies and workers’ substance use. International Journal of Drug Policy. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2015.08.017