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Sue Tumelty

The HR Dept

Founder and Chair

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Legal highs: the impact on the workplace


The use of ‘legal highs’ is on an upward curve in England, Scotland and Wales and the effects are worrying, with 129 deaths in 2014 where new psychoactive substances were implicated.

For business, figures show that one third of employers see drug or alcohol use in the workplace as a problem, while half believe that private usage is affecting employees in their jobs.

With alcohol-related sickness absences alone costing the UK economy over £1.9 billion a year, the fact that around 80 new legal highs were discovered in the country last year is becoming a growing concern for employers, too.

ACAS has recently issued guidelines for employers on how to deal with the problem and new legislation banning the use of legal highs is due for introduction in April.

What are legal highs?

Legal highs are defined as being any stimulant which is not banned by law. They can range from naturally found plants, to commonly-consumed substances like alcohol and coffee, to gases such as nitrous oxide.

Over the past few years, concern is rising over a spate of synthetically-produced chemicals which imitate the effects of common recreational drugs.

As they cannot be legally sold for human consumption they are often branded as types of incense, salts or plant food. Ingredients described on the packaging are rarely what is included and these new ‘legal highs’ have been directly linked to poisoning, emergency hospital admissions including in mental health services and, in some cases, deaths.

As with other drugs, legal highs fall into three categories – stimulants which have similar affects to amphetamines or cocaine, downers which are like cannabis or valium and hallucinogens which affect the body in the same way as LSD or ketamine.

The problem can be that it’s impossible without the right expertise and equipment to determine what such a substance contains, so the effects are unpredictable and potentially lethal.

Cognitive symptoms of paranoia, anxiety and potentially psychosis aren’t uncommon (despite the fact they’re known as legal ‘highs’), and physical symptoms such as heightened energy, talking and activity levels, euphoria or drowsiness, may alert employers to their usage.

In the workplace – the effect on health and safety

Users and their colleagues alike can have their health and safety compromised by the effects of legal highs. The mind altering impacts of certain substances used by individuals in certain roles have the potential to cause serious harm.

Sedative highs that induce effects similar to that of cannabis can inhibit concentration levels and slow down reaction times, which may be crucial while driving, or operating heavy machinery.

A common symptom of all legal highs may be physical unsteadiness, an undesirable effect on someone who operates at height, uses platforms or manually lifts heavy objects.

Psychedelic drugs that induce hallucinogenic type effects are of course just as dangerous. In a working environment drug induced confusion and erratic behaviour can cause an employee to put themselves and their colleagues at great risks.

Other workplace impacts

It doesn’t stop there, however. In failing to deal with drug misuse, employers face further hidden consequences.

One impact could be on your company culture – a complex unwritten code that all employees look to and use to judge their own behaviours and that of their colleagues.

When those rules are broken, such as when an employee abuses alcohol or substances at work against the status quo, relationships along with your company culture follow suit.

Staff turnover may increase, working relationships between certain colleagues break down, and you’re left with the incredibly difficult task of rebuilding a positive environment. 

So what can companies do?

It looks like legal highs are here to stay, even though the Government’s The Psychoactive Substances Bill (announced in May 2015) is currently going through Parliament. Criticism of the Bill suggests it will ban harmless substances and drive the worst into the criminal underground.

Proponents of the legislation say it will aim to control legal highs, which are currently untested and unpredictable. It’s a tough ask to keep up though. Current drug classifications are being processed on a case-by-case basis, while new drugs are being rapidly developed with around 80 becoming newly available each year.

In the meantime, UK employers must be prepared to deal with legal high and substance abuse issues as they arise.

The notion that they’re legal may give provide some with the false entitlement to use them before, after or even during work.

This is not and should not be the case.

Employers should look to identify usage, and through education, or through policy, prevent usage in the future.

The soft approach

Substance abuse should always be taken seriously. But in many cases, a soft approach is advisable.

If you spot frequent absences, or a change in an employee’s behaviour that could indicate any form of substance abuse whether legal or not, seek advice.

As a manager you should in the first instance encourage the employee to seek help and there are lots of resources out there to take advantage of.

You should support them through rehabilitation, and manage with confidentiality working relations amongst the workforce that could be affected.

Implement the control of legal highs within policies and procedures

Many users of legal highs may not, because they are marketed as legal and sold openly in shops or online, fully realise the effects they might have.

Similarly, many users may not understand that the use of these drugs is probably banned in most workplaces under the organisation's existing drugs policy. Some managers might not realise this either.

Users of legal highs may argue that there are many stimulants endorsed by society – caffeine, nicotine, even sugar – which are equally as harmful to one’s health but come without the emotive tag of being a ‘drug’.

But the employer has every right to manage the productiveness of its employees and as such has the authority to determine what is and is not acceptable within the workplace.

It is important to remember that alcohol and drugs policies do not have to be limited to what is allowed in the law and what is banned. For example the use of alcohol is an accepted part of social and occasionally working life.

Some workplaces therefore allow social drinking during breaks in working hours, as long as it does not negatively impact on employees abilities to do their jobs.

Drug use is often dealt with more firmly, mainly because the effects as described can be longer-lasting and with more severe repercussions.

Some companies may include routine or random drug testing within its policies and procedures.

If so, it may be harder to spot the use of legal highs, because the compounds they contain change regularly.

We suggest that it may in fact be easier for a policy to concentrate on the effects the drugs have on employees and their performance, rather than the actual stimulants taken.

A good starting point for any company is a solid policy for the alcohol and misuse of drugs, whether legal or not, explaining what they are and why they are banned. HR experts will be able to advise you if help is required.

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Sue Tumelty

Founder and Chair

Read more from Sue Tumelty

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