Drug and Alcohol Worker

The Job and What's Involved

As a drug and alcohol or substance misuse worker, you would help people to tackle their problems with abusing drugs (illegal, prescription and over-the-counter), alcohol or solvents.

The job can be very challenging but also rewarding. You would help clients to access services such as counselling, healthcare and education. Your job could also cover the following areas:

Outreach Work – encouraging people with substance misuse problems to engage with support services.

Counselling and Rehabilitation – giving therapeutic support and dealing with the causes of substance misuse

Prison Work (known as arrest referral work) – supporting clients arrested for drug-related offences.

Education and Training – supporting clients with reading, writing, maths, IT and job search skills.

Healthcare – working as a specialist nurse in an addiction clinic, where your duties might include prescribing drug treatments and supervising needle exchange programmes.

Advocacy – helping clients to use housing, employment and healthcare services, and speaking up for clients in the justice system.

Prison 'CARAT' Work – counselling, advising and supporting clients in prisons and remand centres, including support with detox programmes (CARAT stands for Counselling, Assessment, Referral, Advice and Throughcare).

In some jobs you may cover several of these areas, whilst in larger services you might specialise.

Whatever the main focus of your job, you would also have other tasks such as making risk assessments, designing training and care programmes, and providing ongoing support for clients while they deal with their substance misuse issues.

In a full-time job you would work 35 to 40 hours a week. Your hours may be irregular and unsocial, and on-call duties could also form part of your work.

Your workplace would depend on your job. In the justice system, you would be based in a prison or remand centre. In outreach work, you would travel around your district, visiting centres and schools. Alternatively, you might be based in a health centre or residential rehab unit.

Employment officers, and outreach and drop-in centre workers earn between £20,000 and £25,000 a year. Counsellors and specialist nursing staff can earn between £23,000 and £28,000. Team leaders and local service managers can earn up to £35,000 a year.

Volunteers may receive expenses such as travel costs.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

You could come from a variety of backgrounds such as nursing, criminal justice, social care, youth work or counselling. For example, you may have dealt with drug- or alcohol-dependent patients as a nurse, or worked in the probation service dealing with offenders after their release.

If you have personal experience of addiction or dependency you could also apply for this type of work, as applications are usually welcome from people who have successfully come through treatment.

Volunteering is an excellent way to gain relevant experience, make contacts and eventually find paid work. It not only gives the employer a chance to see your skills and motivation, but also allows you to decide whether this is the career for you. Most drug and alcohol support organisations offer volunteering opportunities and training.

You can find volunteering opportunities by contacting local substance misuse organisations, or visit the do-it.org or Talktofrank websites, where you can search for organisations by postcode or town.

Education and Training

Employers often ask for between six months and two years' relevant experience (paid or unpaid), and the ability to work with vulnerable people. For some jobs employers may ask for professional qualifications in social work, nursing or counselling, but this is not always the case.

You will need an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check for most jobs. You may need a driving licence and access to a vehicle for jobs that involve outreach work or travel between project centres.

For more information about working in this field, see the Federation of Drug & Alcohol Professionals (FDAP), DrugScope and Alcohol Concern websites.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Most organisations will offer you on-the-job training whether you are volunteering or in paid employment.

Your training will be based around the skills needed for your particular job. It may include short sessions on a particular aspect of your role, or the chance to gain formal work-based qualifications.

The Federation of Drug & Alcohol Professionals (FDAP) offers a range of qualifications and accreditation for substance abuse practitioners, counsellors and managers. For more information, see the Qualifications section of the FDAP website.

You could also take one of a number of university courses in subjects such as drug and alcohol counselling or addictive behaviours. These can range from foundation degree to postgraduate level and are available full-time, part-time and through distance learning from several universities around the UK.

Drug charities strongly recommend that you check that any academic training includes work-based placements to gain practical experience.

For more details about training courses and providers, see the Workforce Development section of the DrinkandDrugs.net website.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A drug and alcohol worker needs:

  • Empathy and a calm, caring approach.
  • An understanding of substance misuse issues and their impact on people.
  • A non-judgemental attitude.
  • The ability to build trusting relationships.
  • The ability to work both alone and as part of a team.
  • Excellent communication and listening skills.
  • The ability to work closely with a range of different organisations.
  • Respect for confidentiality.

Your Long Term Prospects

With experience, you could become a volunteer coordinator or project team leader.

You could also specialise in working with a particular user group, for example young people.

Get Further Information

Federation of Drug & Alcohol Professionals
Website: www.fdap.org.uk

DrugScope
Website: www.drugscope.org.uk

Alcohol Concern
Website: www.alcoholconcern.org.uk

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