Helping staff get back on trackOn 14 Oct 2003 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos. Comments are closed. Previous Article Next Article A groundbreaking drugs and alcohol advice service has helpedLondon Underground tackle a culture of misuse, reduce sickness absence andimprove productivity. Alex Blyth reportsThe business London Underground (LU) is a major business carrying some 3 millionpassengers a day. It runs 511 trains on 253 miles of track and employs morethan 12,000. It has an HR team of 386. The challenge When, in July 2003, the London Evening Standard claimed that a culture of”drink and drug abuse” was prevalent among LU employees andsubcontractors, the company was able to point to its highly successfulprogramme for tackling alcohol abuse. While crashes, strikes, andpart-privatisation have kept LU in the headlines, few have noticed the workdone by LU manager Nigel Radcliffe and his team in building the groundbreakingdrug and alcohol advisory service. LU set up the unit in 1993 in response to new legislation that would holdorganisations liable if they failed to show due diligence in ensuring thatthose in control of public transport were not intoxicated. Random testing wasintroduced and Radcliffe was hired to set up and manage the unit. Radcliffe describes the culture of alcohol abuse. “The depots all hadbars. Shift workers would drink together before doing the night shift, andmanagement turned a blind eye.” The implications of this lack of action went beyond immediate concerns overcriminal prosecution. Alcohol Concern estimates that absenteeism and lowproductivity as a direct result of alcohol abuse costs the UK £2bn a year, andLU was certainly bearing heavy costs in this respect. Radcliffe describes how the unit faced tough decisions from the outset.”A core issue was how to deal with someone in a safety-critical job whohas just admitted to an alcohol problem. We have to stand the employee downfrom their job, but we also have to honour our promise to protect their job.For this reason, it is crucially important to hire top-quality assessmentstaff, but many companies balk at the cost and effort required. There are ahandful of consultancies offering the service, but we decided to build theexpertise entirely in-house.” The unit helps about 100 employees each year, with about 60 per cent havinga serious problem. The first stage is a three-week assessment programme, at theend of which a contract is signed. The contract details the requirements of thecompany for that individual to return to their job. Fifty per cent requireresidential treatment and most of this is done through a cost-sharingarrangement with local authorities. Treatment frequently takes up to a year tocomplete. The programme costs almost £500,000 a year, and has facedconsiderable opposition from parts of the organisation. However, after 10years, the results speak for themselves. The outcome Eighty per cent of those who go through the programme return to work withina year. Prior to treatment, those with an alcohol problem take an average of 30days’ sick leave, while after treatment this falls to just seven days. When youconsider the numbers involved, LU is recouping a fair amount of its investmentpurely in terms of attendance. Minimising the risk of prosecution, improved productivity and employeemotivation are also significant benefits for LU, but Radcliffe has been mostsurprised by the shift in attitudes. “Early on there was massiveresistance from unions and management to interference with drinking. Now,drinking at work is perceived to be just as socially unacceptable as drinkdriving.” The employee perspective John has worked for LU since 1983. He describes the drink culture of theearly days. “You weren’t one of the gang if you didn’t drink. I remembermany instances of people not getting overtime because they hadn’t been in thepub before the night shift.” He was a heavy drinker in, around and outside of work. When LU introducedrandom testing, he began to take time off. This continued until the year 2000,when he was close to being sacked for persistent absence and so approached theunit. “I spent six weeks denying my problem before I agreed to go intoresidential treatment. I was there from November to March, during which timethe company continued to pay me. After about 100 days back at work I relapsed,but went straight back to the unit, where we agreed that I needed to startattending AA meetings. By September, I was able to get back to work again andsince then everything has gone well,” he says. John is now a track access controller, earning about £40,000 a year anddoing an important, demanding job for LU. He has no hesitation in praising theunit. “If the unit had not been there, I would probably be dead by now. Iknow how much the company has invested in me. I just hope that I have been ableto repay that investment.” Learning points for HR Radcliffe has four pieces of advice for anyone wanting to set up a similarscheme: – Before you start, be very clear about the relationship between advisoryand disciplinary processes – Ensure the people you hire are good enough to deal with the extremelydifficult jobs you will ask of them – Educate management to ensure buy-in – Be aware of the scale of what you are getting into.