drugs at work policy guidelines

Developing a workplace illicit drugs policy

This document provides an overview and guidelines for preparing a workplace drug policy. The full document can be downloaded as a PDF and printed by scrolling to the bottom of this page.

Step-by-Step Guide to creating and implementing a workplace drug policy

Workplace injury, absence and decreases in productivity cost Australian businesses and the wider economy billions every year. Leading researchers have identified drug and alcohol related problems are major contributors to these issues, highlighting the resulting $5.5 billion in lost national productive capacity annually.

As an employer, an organisation not only has a duty of care to provide a safe and healthy working environment for employees, but also to provide a healthy bottom line for stakeholders. Introducing a clear and consistent workplace drug policy can help to minimise drug misuse costs (both financial and human resources) in the workplace, and create a uniform approach for managing this issue.

This document is designed to provide HR and Occupational Health and Safety professionals with simple steps for creating a comprehensive workplace drug policy. While the document will cover the essentials, every workplace is different so it is important to tailor the policy to meet the specific needs of your organisation and employees.

Step One:
How to get started

A workplace drug policy is a document that affects every single person who works in an organisation from the CEO, to the person who works one Thursday each month. For this reason, it is important the development of the policy isn’t a solo effort, but rather, the result of a combined input from many people throughout the organisation.

To get started developing a workplace drug policy, work with organisational auditors and HR and safety teams, in addition to senior and middle management to undertake an audit of the impact of illicit drug and alcohol use as it currently stands in your workplace. This will not only provide context as the document develops, it also creates a benchmark from which future performance can be measured and compared. Your audit will include elements such as absentee figures, decreases in productivity and an examination of your workplace and industry culture in relation to drugs and alcohol. The cultural assessment will examine employee attitude to drugs inside and outside the workplace, and may be conducted through focus groups or surveys.

In working with others to really understand the issue, and how to manage, communicate and educate most effectively, undertaking focus groups or round tables with volunteers from throughout the organisation, or even forming a small committee of representatives will provide a good cross section of information and representation of the organisation.

As part of a group, a draft should be developed and then offered to all representatives as well as senior and middle management for their insights and feedback.

Step Two:
Identify the aims of your policy

Creating a safe workplace is usually the number one objective of most drug policies, closely followed by minimising unnecessary costs. This means your policy needs to aim to prevent alcohol and drug use from causing hazards in the workplace. Another key, and related aim, is to create attitude change around drug use so all employees accept the dangers associated with drug use in the workplace, and this belief informs safer behaviours. You should consult with a range of people in your workplace when determining the aims of your policy, to ensure it is effective and embraced by the entire employee population. You will need to consult with key stakeholders such as management, unions, workers, supervisors and the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) team.

To ensure the language is correct and aims align with key organisational goals, understanding the measures by which business performance is assessed, and how drug use may impact them is important. Considering measures such as lost time injury frequency rate, absenteeism and productivity measures can help set a good standard for measurement of the policy’s effectiveness.

Step Three: What to include

Setting the limit

One of the most important aspects of a workplace drug policy is clearly articulating what is and is not acceptable behaviour and practice when it comes to drug and alcohol use. This section of your policy should clearly state if the organisation has a zero tolerance for any and all use of illicit substances, alcohol and other listed drugs, or if certain limits apply. In addition, while the policy can t stipulate behaviour outside of work, it can dictate that no employee should arrive at work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and the types of behaviours that are acceptable or unacceptable at a workplace function that may include alcohol. It should also indicate the consequences of these actions, for example, those found to be using this substance will be referred for counselling, prior to disciplinary action or termination , or, those found using this substance will be subject to disciplinary procedures .

In some workplaces, the use of some legal substances will also have an impact on the safe work practices of employees. As an example, medications that result in drowsiness may affect an employee s ability to operate heavy machinery. Of course, your policy cannot list every medication and if they are acceptable or not, so should include instructions for employees to contact a relevant consultant should they need to query the possible effect of their prescription on their work.

Highlighting the consequences of illicit drug use: determining whether to terminate or rehabilitate a drug-using employee

A significant part of your policy is defining the consequences of drug use for employees. Making the result of use clear, not only acts as a deterrent but effectively completes your policy by enabling employees to see what actions are unacceptable and in turn, what will happen if they do not comply.

If your organisation hasn t previously developed a workplace policy, it is unlikely senior leaders have determined the organisation s standard response to drug use. In some organisations employees found to be using drugs will be disciplined or terminated, in others they will be rehabilitated , that is, given time off to undertake treatment and counselling before again being found fit for work. Some organisations also choose to use a combination of these and fit the response to the individual situation.

A brief description of one approach to dealing with drug use and resulting poor performance or behaviours in the work place, is as follows. This example relates most to an environment within which the type of drug use has minimal impact on safety.

  1. Document the employee’s poor work performance.
  2. Discuss concerns with the employee informally (focusing on performance not drug use).
  3. If poor performance continues, as a manager, conduct the first formal interview where employee is advised of problem, is told their performance will be monitored, is given the opportunity to provide an explanation for their poor performance and may be referred to support services.
  4. If poor performance continues, a manager and HR representative may conduct the second formal interview during which the employee is cautioned about the effects of continued poor performance and is told they will continue to be monitored, in addition to being offered support.
  5. If performance is still sub-par, conduct final interview (a union or employee representative may attend with HR) during which the risk of dismissal is raised and the employee is told they will continue to be monitored
  6. If performance does not improve, the employee is dismissed

You may wish to enhance this process by offering the employee further support and materials, including the NCPIC take-home postcard pack which provides drug information, intervention/treatment and referral. This offer needs to be made in a sensitive manner, perhaps by providing other information and support for other common causes of poor work performance i.e. mental health information, relationship conflict advice, stress management resources, referral to confidential workplace counselling services, or by creating a page on your organisational intranet that gives employees access to a range of support materials so they can choose the applicable one in their own time. It may also be wise to refer the employee in the early stages of the process to an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), where they can be assessed, referred, treated and counselled for whatever personal problems are contributing to their poor performance.

It is not up to you as an HR or OHS professional to solve their problems or diagnose their issues, however, providing a person with the support they need to overcome issues that affect their work may be an effective approach. It not only encourages help-seeking, but also shows the organisation values and supports the employee, and may help retain what may be a very valuable and experienced employee.

Guidance for how to recognise risky drug use by employees

As your policy will be used and implemented by HR and OHS professionals as well as managers, it is important it provides guidance on behaviours that indicate possible drug use. All employees will ultimately have access to the document, so this will also provide further education to them on what to look for in their team mates.

Work performance problems are usually the first clue that drug use may be an issue for an employee. It must be noted, however, that many other explanations for poor performance do exist, so it is important all managers and HR administrators are trained in the correct procedures for determining the actual cause of performance deterioration. Factors such as ill-health, mental health issues, lack of sleep, family conflict, financial difficulties, workplace bullying and harassment may have a significant impact on work performance. Professionals must have an open mind when approaching employees and give them the opportunity to discuss what they believe to be the cause of their poor performance.

Referring them to an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) can help them deal with all these problems, including drug use, if that applies to their situation.

Some common signs that cannabis (the most commonly used illicit drug in the workplace) may be affecting work performance include:

  • Problems with balance, coordination, short-term memory, thinking, movement and concentration.
  • An increase in accidents: cannabis increases accident risk as it impairs reaction time and performance of manual tasks. It lowers blood pressure and increases heart rate which can cause fainting.
  • Difficulties with co-workers: cannabis may change behaviour, motivation and ability to carry out work duties effectively. This may impact on others at work making them frustrated and concerned for their safety or workload.
  • Inability to make decisions: cannabis affects short-term memory and logic, resulting in difficulty in decision-making and completing complex tasks. This can seriously affect work performance.
  • Lack of motivation: using cannabis regularly can lead to a lack of motivation and energy, affecting learning ability and productivity.

Guidance for how to sensitively and effectively manage an employee suspected of drug use

Drug use and misuse can be a very sensitive issue, especially because it may relate to other things that are happening in a person s life. Knowing how to approach the situation or if you should at all is important for all employees, even those at a senior level. Including this information in your policy, will also make clear the actions and responsibilities of people at all levels.

Ground level employees

Your policy should educate them so they understand it is not their responsibility to have the difficult conversations with their colleagues while they do share some of the responsibility for their safety and that of their colleagues, the policy should limit their actions if they suspect drug use in a work mate. Employees should be encouraged to learn the behaviours to look out for, and if they notice any of these, to talk to their manager or a HR representative as soon as possible, so the safety risks can be identified and mitigated.

HR and OHS managers

In HR or management positions, the level of responsibility changes, with these employees often tasked with undertaking initial conversations. The most crucial focal point for these professionals, is that any discussions with an employee suspected of drug use must centre on work performance and support for improvement. It is not the role of the HR professional to diagnose or treat drug use problems in employees. The focus must always be on the employee s work performance problems (unless of course suspected drug use is confirmed by drug testing, which is not conducted in many workplaces).

If drug use is suspected, the employee may be referred to an EAP program (Employee Assistance Program). This is where the employee is best placed to be assessed, referred, treated and counselled. Staff confidentiality must be respected and guidelines followed carefully when drug use is suspected. In addition to this action, if the employee s behaviour is affecting their own, or someone else s safety, their role requirements may be temporarily changed to minimise risk, for example, they may fill in paperwork or sweep as opposed to operating machinery.

If an employee admits to drug use or drug testing indicates use, there are ways of discussing the issue sensitively and effectively without resorting to accusatory or threatening communication styles this is covered more thoroughly in the next section and the Appendix.

Guidance on how to provide drug information and referral to drug-using employees

While not vital to include in an organisation-wide document, HR representatives should be provided with guidance on how to provide information and referral for employees who approach them to discuss a drug problem. These issues are very serious and a HR representative should not feel pressured to get involved in conversations and support which they are not qualified to deliver.

When approached for support, it may be useful to provide information and referral to support services, such as an EAP or treatment professional, to ensure workplace safety and the individual s well-being. Information about cannabis misuse and support can also be found in the form of a workplace take home kit provided by The National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) on the NCPIC website. It is also included in the Appendix of this document for further guidance. This kit can be displayed freely for all employees to access in a brochure rack, distributed at OHS meetings for employees, given to employees who are being terminated due to drug use as a type of care package , included in an intranet support page, or even included in welcome or induction packs for all new staff members, along with copies of your workplace drug policy.

The kit includes information such as, How does cannabis affect my work performance , How does cannabis affect my health? and Cannabis and addiction . It also details help and support options, in addition to a simple quiz: Quick Quiz: Am I addicted to cannabis? The quiz is based on evidence that shows an effective intervention for cannabis use is simply to have drug users answer brief questions about how much cannabis they use and then make feedback available to them about their level of use/addiction. This, along with providing drug information and effects on health, is in fact an effective way to start treatment/intervention, which will be conducted by health professionals.

Please note, provision of this information is not a substitute for professional treatment or intervention.

Step Four: Communication and education

How to educate your employees about your policy

A good policy is only as strong as the promotion that communicates its existence and contents to your employees. If they don t know what the policy is or that your organisation has one, how can you expect them to adhere to it?

Communication about your policy needs to be conducted at key points during employment, and on a regular basis. Some important opportunities for education and communication include:

  • New employee induction: Whether yours is an organisation that makes an event of induction, or just hands out a kit after an initial meeting with HR, if you aren t communicating your policy at this point, you are missing an opportunity. To have the most impact, ensure your education method is engaging and interesting but also relevant. If induction is a group situation, consider group discussions about how drug use at work can affect health and safety and what to look for. Inclusion of multimedia such as videos or games will also emphasise your message and get new employees involved. Importantly, ensure your full policy is included in the induction kit that is provided at the end of induction.
  • Workplace Health and Safety training: Most organisations hold annual OHS training and refresher training, and given drug use is so often closely related to accidents and injuries, it is important to devote a section of education within these courses to the drug policy and what behaviours to look for in colleagues who are potentially using drugs.
  • Manager training: When promoted to management or looking to improve leadership skills, many employees of larger organisations will often be given an opportunity to attend internal leadership or management training. While budgets, conflict resolution and leadership communication are highly valuable, this is also a crucial opportunity to impress upon new and upcoming managers, the effects of employee drug use on other employees and the bottom line. Managers should be encouraged to have read and understood the policy, with conversational workshops during management training a good chance to discuss implementation and challenges.
  • Internal communication campaigns: Internal Communication professionals often have as many communication channels to choose from now as external marketers. They hold regular promotions and campaigns for internal and structural changes or announcements, and the drug policy should be an important campaign scheduled in each year. By creating an engaging intranet page for the policy, and promoting it through internal social networks, team meetings, posters, training, desk drops and other channels, employees will learn of and gain a better understanding of your policy.
  • Don’t leave it to one conversation: It is important education and communication of the policy is not just undertaken on one occasion and forgotten about or the policy will be forgotten too. A part of ensuring your policy is effective, and making sure people are aware of it and take it seriously, is maintaining regular communication, so schedule in promotions, training, and information packages several times during the employee lifecycle.

How to promote cultural change that supports a drug-free workplace

Education and awareness are important, but a strong policy is underpinned by a workplace culture that is truly invested in a safe and drug-free workplace. To build such a culture, HR and Internal Communications leaders, combined with senior leaders, need to take a top-down, bottom-up approach. What this essentially means is that senior managers can t simply pass on information to employees with no real investment in it, they need to be genuinely on board with safety, and managing drug misuse at work, and they need to convey this to their people in an inspiring and influential manner. Likewise, senior managers can t simply tell employees how they should think and feel (the elements that underpin cultural development), they need to encourage conversation at all levels, open the floor for feedback and suggestions from those subordinate to them, and forget hierarchy because safety is the job of everyone equally. Some suggestions for building a safety and drug-free orientated culture include:


  • Ensure safety training and induction are interesting, and the presenter is truly invested and excited about safety.
  • Include genuine safety messages that people relate to in regular messages from organisational leaders, for example, the weekly CEO bulletin. For example, share real anecdotes about his or her experiences with a colleague on drugs in a past role or without naming people.
  • Share organisational performance figures, especially those relating to absenteeism, injury and productivity, openly across the organisation and provide commentary around how results have fluctuated and potential causes.
  • Celebrate success.
  • Provide regular promotion of and avenues to seek support and assistance.


  • Create an online or physical safety suggestion box, where people can share their thoughts and ideas on policies such as your workplace drug policy.
  • Start a representative group, chaired by the CEO, that includes people from all levels who come together to talk about drug use issues in the workplace. This will encourage employees to share, because they will feel valued by the CEO.
  • Create an internal hotline, so employees who are concerned about a workmate can get advice and support without feeling like they are dobbing in a mate.

Step Five: Other considerations: drug testing and prevention

How to prevent drug use

A number of strategies need to be implemented to prevent drug use in the workplace. To make it simple, remember the five P s:

Policy: Through research, collaboration and clear goals, develop a workplace drug policy that makes sense and helps protect all employees.

Promote: Once the policy is in place, promote it to all employees on a regular basis so they understand it and adhere to it.

Prize: Show that the organisation values good behaviour by rewarding it. If a particular team has high performance levels, and has implemented the policy well, celebrate their success throughout the organisation so others see what they have done.

Penalise: While penalties for not adhering to the policy will differ across organisations, ensure people understand the penalties and that they are enforced.

Put it into practice: Your policy and training will include information about leading from the front, being open and honest and supporting team mates. Put all aspects of the policy into practice every day in addition to strong education and communication, and leaders who are genuinely invested in a drug-free workplace so you can create a culture that underpins the policy.

How to decide if drug testing is appropriate and how to implement it

Not all workplaces will employ workplace drug testing. It is usually reserved for industries where drug affected employees pose a serious health and safety risk to themselves and others, such as in transport, mining or construction. In most other industries, there is little evidence to suppot its use. If your organisation is debating the pros and cons of implementing drug testing, it s worthwhile knowing that it can be expensive and may not reduce use without strong support, communication and leadership. Conversely, it can act as a deterrentin the right industries, and can enable more simple identification of drug use. Some factors to think about if you do decide to go ahead with drug testing are as follows:

  • What testing method will be used? Urine or saliva testing may be options. Privacy concerns have been raised with urine testing, and in both urine and saliva testing, determining when the drug use occurred and whether the employee is in fact impaired is not always accurate. See NCPIC Bulletin 7 for more information.
  • Will testing be random, scheduled or targeted? Random testing is used most often in workplaces that do test, however, the available evidence suggests this is not always effective. When assessing what s right for your organisation, you need to carefully examine your organisation s circumstances and conditions prior to determining the most appropriate regime. Also important is considering the reasons driving testing in your organisation. Do you hope to test the integrity of your workforce, or is your first aim to improve safety and productivity? The answer to this will most certainly drive the form of testing, for instance, if they are making a claim to safety then the most useful matrix is saliva/oral fluid because of the much briefer window of detection (and a greater likelihood that the person has used the targeted substance recently). If you are testing for integrity, then urine becomes the most useful matrix because it has a lengthier window of detection (and is therefore more likely to show a brief history of use of the targeted substance). According to a leading Alcohol and other Drug consultant, bringing in a urine testing regime and making a claim to safety may find your organisation before the Fair Work Commission and the likelihood is your system will be stopped before it has a chance to start. So, is testing really right for your organisation?
  • Will all employees be tested? If only the workers at the coal-face are tested and the office workers are not, it may cause resentment and conflict in the workplace.
  • What are the consequences? Will your policy stipulate that if an employee tests positive to drug use they will be disciplined or terminated? Or will they get another chance? Or will a positive result instead provide a chance to put the employee on a pathway to rehabilitation?

For more information or consultation about workplace drug policy, please feel free to contact Donna Bull (email) who assisted us with the information on this site.

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