How much of a problem is drug and alcohol abuse at work?

Workplaces reflect local communities. Because drug and alcohol abuse are significant social problems, they are also workplace issues. According to the government’s General Lifestyle Survey 2011, 10.8 million adults drink at levels that pose a risk to their health. Up to 45% of young workers (aged 16-29) and 40% of workers under 40 have experimented with illegal drugs. A survey by DrugScope and Alcohol Concern found that:

  • 27% of employers say drug misuse is a problem at work.
  • 60% have experienced problems due to staff drinking alcohol.

According to the findings of the 2014 crime survey for England and Wales, 8.8% of the working age population has taken an illicit drug in the past year.

Research suggests that actual use of illegal drugs while at work is very low.

The use of prescription drugs at work is much more common. An estimated 1.5 million people are addicted to prescription and over-the-counter drugs in the UK, while a large number of others use them occasionally. Many of these drugs can have a significant effect on performance, concentration or alertness.

Alcohol misuse is an even bigger problem. In an NHS survey, 25% of men reported drinking over eight units and 16% of women reported drinking over six units on at least one day the previous week. It is estimated that between 3% and 5% of all absences – up to 17 million working days – are lost each year due to alcohol. Sickness absence due to alcohol is estimated to cost the UK economy over £7.3 billion a year.

Many people use alcohol or drugs to help cope with work-related stress, and if there is a problem with alcohol or drug misuse in your workplace then this might be part of a wider stress problem. See our Stress section for more advice. Some forms of drugs are also used to overcome fatigue.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.