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Signs and symptoms of misuse in the workplace

Signs and symptoms of misuse in the workplace

Let’s be clear from the start, misuse is not dependency and for both issues to be managed effectively, they must be treated separately within an alcohol and drugs policy.

A number of policies we review at Hampton Knight have mixed the two issues as one, and this leads to confusion as to how these issues are managed. For clarity, there should be one clear definition for misuse and one clear definition for dependency, with distinct outcomes for each. As you will see from the two definitions below, there is a clear distinction between misuse and dependency.

The definition of misuse

“Applies to using drugs in an unsanctioned way. For example, any illegal drug use, or using drugs for non-medical purposes without proper direction to do so from an appropriately qualified person such as a medical practitioner or pharmacist. It also applies to using alcohol or drugs in a way that is harmful/hazardous to the employee or to others and which is likely to distort perception and response”.

The definition of dependency

“When an employee has adapted physically and/or psychologically to the presence of alcohol or drugs and would suffer if they were withdrawn abruptly”.

Risk from misuse

There is an obvious risk to the workplace from an employee who misuses alcohol or drugs. They can have a dramatic impact on their work colleagues or members of the public, with devastating effect such as major injury or loss of life. It is therefore key that an employee suspected of misuse is managed immediately to avoid these consequences.

Signs and symptoms

Misuse can come in many forms and the signs and symptoms of misuse differ to those related to a dependency, they tend to be more in the moment, whereas signs and symptoms for a dependency may take weeks or months to become apparent.

Based on the definition, the signs and symptoms of misuse will range from physical signs of impairment such as the smell of alcohol or drugs, slurring of words, glazed eyes, pinned or dilated pupils, to the more difficult to spot such as unusual behaviour to the employee’s normal demeanour such as excessive hyperactivity, lethargy or aggression. 


What is clear is that a company must have a clear procedure in place for managers to act upon if there is a concern that an employee is impaired at work. There should also be a clear procedure for employees to raise concerns in confidence if they suspect a work colleague is impaired at work.

If it is agreed by managers that the employee is impaired due to the misuse of alcohol or drugs and it is not related to normal use of medication or a medical condition, then a test should be carried out to confirm or discount alcohol and drugs as the cause.

Further Information

If you would like more information regarding the management of alcohol and drug misuse, or dependency in the workplace, please contact Hampton Knight on 01827 65999.

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