A wellness approach is more effective at reducing alcohol and drug use among aged care staff than testing in the workplace, says a workplace psychologist.
Aged and Community Services NSW & ACT announced earlier this year it was working on a drug education and testing policy template for its members to address the risks associated with drug and alcohol and support staff who may need help.
While drug and alcohol testing is justified in some workplaces – such as ensuring people don’t operate heavy vehicles when they have a blood alcohol reading – only a small proportion of industries require this, said Nicole Lee, a workplace psychologist and associate professor at the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University.
Based on the little up-to-date published data on the use of drugs and alcohol by employees in different industries, Ms Lee said that health and welfare was considered low risk as an industry.
Instead of testing or focusing primarily on drug and alcohol use, Dr Lee said a fitness-to-work approach that encompassed policies on drugs and alcohol was more effective.
“Drug testing in the workplace hasn’t actually been shown to reduce use or harm in the workplace,” Dr Lee told Australian Ageing Agenda.
Other factors that cannot be tested for – such as stress, depression, anxiety, health problems and fatigue – could also affect a person’s fitness for work, she said.
Dr Lee, a director of 360Edge, which provides support in workforce development and alcohol and drug policies, said it was helpful for organisations to provide education to managers and workers, and employee assistance if they need it, rather than that more punitive approaches.
Stress, for example, was known to lead to high rates of drug and alcohol use, and was an area employers could address as part of a comprehensive approach to health and wellbeing, she said.
“We know that workplace conditions have a big effect on people people’s stress and therefore whether they use drugs and alcohol as well.”
Poor organisational culture, insufficient training, inadequate equipment, industrial action and poor job security could all trigger stress, impact on a person’s drug and alcohol use or increase their risk of not working to their full capacity, she said.
After effects most prominent
Across all industries, alcohol was a bigger risk factor than illicit drugs, Dr Lee said.
“Most people worry about drug use in their workplace but alcohol is probably the bigger problem. More people drink and most people who work drink; [around] 80 to 85 per cent. It is not that they are drinking at work, but it is probably going to affect more people.”
Dr Lee said the most common effects from alcohol and drugs were absenteeism, such as when an employee was hungover and couldn’t come to work, and presenteesim, when they came to work hungover and could not work to their full capacity.
“It is a relatively small proportion of people who would come to work affected by drugs and you would probably be able to tell without testing.”
She said organisations needed to question whether a testing policy added to their ability to identify a person affected by alcohol or drugs, and to consider the raft of legal and privacy implications of having a testing policy and what to do if a person tested positive.
“You have to have a quite good policy in place to ensure there is some kind of effective response to that,” Dr Lee said.
Regardless of testing, Dr Lee said it was important organisations had a clear and thorough policy on drugs and alcohol in the workplace that included the availability of drugs and alcohol on work sites, the provision of alcohol at work events, such as Christmas parties, and allowing people to drink during work time.
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