Alcohol and the workplace – the hidden threat to employee wellbeing

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Starting conversations at work about the health risks posed by excessive alcohol consumption can bring benefits – not just for the wellbeing of employees but the organisation’s productivity and safety standards.

It is widely acknowledged that we live in an alco-centric society where alcohol plays a central role in many of our lives. We use it to celebrate the good times, commiserate the bad times, to socialise, to wind down and sometimes just to try to cope. But we treat it differently to other drugs; it’s legal, socially acceptable, even encouraged.

It’s not surprising therefore that more than 25 million adults in England regularly drink alcohol and statistically, drinkers are more likely to be employed than non-drinkers.
This means the effects of over-consumption of alcohol are often felt in the workplace. It also means that the workplace can be a good place to help people identify alcohol problems and overcome them.

27 per cent of employees reported that workplace stress makes them drink more. Photograph: iStock

Perhaps surprisingly, most alcohol-related workplace incidents are not caused by very heavy drinkers but by more moderate drinkers. As little as one small drink of alcohol can impair concentration and affect reaction times, but most people are unaware of the number of units they consume or how long alcohol remains in the body.

What exactly is the problem?

Lost productivity due to alcohol use costs the UK economy more than £7 billion annually, and an estimated 167,000 working years are lost to alcohol every year. People may attend work hungover or still be under the influence from the night before, consume alcohol before work or during the day, or their work may be affected by health problems resulting from drinking.

Here are a few examples:

  • 40 per cent of employers mention alcohol as a significant cause of low productivity
    Around four per cent of all work absence is caused by alcohol consumption
  • 25 per cent of employees have stated that drugs or alcohol have affected them at work, with 23 per cent saying they had experienced decreased productivity as a result
  • Workplaces don’t just suffer from the effects of alcohol – they can exacerbate the problem.
  • 27 per cent of employees reported that workplace stress makes them drink more.
  • Many workplace cultures also encourage drinking, whether through informal socialising or workplace events where drinking is considered the norm and alcohol is often made available for free.

Who is at risk?

Research shows that employees in some industries are more likely to be at greater risk of alcohol harm than others, as a result of heavy or dependent drinking. Heading the list are mining and construction, hospitality, arts and entertainment, utilities and wholesale.
However, there are other important risk factors that have been identified as increasing the likelihood of alcohol-related harm. These include:

  • Shift work
  • Poor working conditions (hazardous, hot, cramped, at height, underground)
  • Personal conflict and stress
  • Low job security or lack of control
  • Changes or upheaval at work
  • Drinking culture being seen as normal at work.

Also, on average, figures show that alcohol consumption tends to be higher among people in managerial and professional roles than for those in lower paid jobs.

Abusing alcohol can mean that underlying mental health problems aren’t addressed. Photograph: iStock

Alcohol and mental health

As well as affecting our physical health, alcohol can have a big impact on our mental wellbeing. In fact, around one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

Some of us who experience problems with our mental health may drink alcohol to try and help manage stress, anxiety, depression or other mental health problems.

This is sometimes called ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol. Unfortunately, although alcohol can help us feel relaxed initially and give us a brief feeling of euphoria, the effects are short-lived and the long-term negative consequences of drinking a lot over a long period of time can be quite harmful. For instance:

  • Overuse of alcohol can contribute to the worsening of symptoms of many mental health problems. In particular, it can lead to low mood and anxiety
  • As the immediate feeling of calm after drinking fades over time, the person may feel worse than before
  • Post-drinking hangovers can be particularly difficult, with the usual headache and nausea being accompanied by feelings of depression and/or anxiety
  • Using alcohol in this way can mean that the underlying mental health problems aren’t addressed.

Given that we typically spend large chunks of our adult lives working, it’s inevitable that our drinking, our mental wellbeing and our working lives are all inter-connected in some way. We know that alcohol and mental health problems can manifest in the workplace and with the rise of flexible working hours and home working due to the pandemic, managing your drinking has never been more important.

Let’s talk about alcohol at work

Talking about alcohol in the workplace can be difficult. Many people – and companies – worry that talking about alcohol may make them seem a bit of a party pooper or antisocial and will upset their workforce. And if handled clumsily, talking about alcohol can cause problems. But handled well and with the right framing, these conversations can be engaging, fun and extremely positive.

Discussing individual alcohol consumption can also elicit strong defensive responses, so skill is required to disarm defensiveness and help people to open up. Alcohol is often mischaracterised as being a matter of personal choice. In reality, the environments around us have far more effect on our drinking than our personal choices.

Academics and experts do not agree about every issue on alcohol harm, but years of research is united by one fact: alcohol harm is primarily socially and culturally determined.
That’s why Alcohol Change UK’s approach is to ‘depersonalise’ alcohol issues. We talk about the science and the society in which we live, and help organisations to appreciate their own powerful role.

Supporting the conversation at work

The British Medical Association has recommended that: “Managers and supervisors should be trained to recognise the signs of problems with alcohol. They should know what to do if they suspect an employee has a problem or if they are approached by an employee who declares a problem.”

More and more organisations are now providing training for line managers, wellbeing staff and those who are in a position to recognise, advise and support colleagues who disclose alcohol issues. It helps them to feel more confident and able to have a potentially difficult conversation about alcohol.

Jane Gardiner: "If handled clumsily, talking about alcohol can cause problems."

How can I reduce the risks to my organisation?

A recent article published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development stated that: “There is a strong argument for greater preventative action and employer support for drug and alcohol misuse in difficult social and economic times, when people may feel anxious and more vulnerable.

“It is essential that employers have support mechanisms in place… also, that employees are made aware of what support is available to them, should they need it, including signposting to external professional sources of help.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach but putting in place a few key measures can make a huge difference to your workplace’s productivity, safety, and your employees’ wellbeing:

  • A good place to start is to develop an alcohol policy. Research shows that effective alcohol policies can promote employee health and wellbeing, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and provide substantial returns on investment
  • An employee assistance programme ensures that employees can access support with mental and physical health issues
  • Raise awareness by booking a webinar to help start the conversation about alcohol in the workplace. Many companies choose to put on a webinar or short talk about alcohol, often at lunchtimes or during a regular guest speaker or wellbeing slot. This investment of an hour of employee time can really help to reduce stigma and open up conversations about alcohol harm
  • Ensure that social events aren’t entirely geared around alcohol and have good alcohol-free drinks on offer
  • Sign your workplace up to Dry January. With more and more people wanting to take on Dry January, supporting them in the workplace is a brilliant idea – for wellbeing, productivity and more.

The bottom line

No workplace can successfully tackle workplace wellbeing without tackling alcohol, but the prize for those workplaces who get this right is huge.
A workplace that is free from serious alcohol-harm will see:

  • A reduction in the risk of safeguarding incidents such as sexual harassment
  • Real, measurable improvements in wellbeing – physical, mental and financial
  • Genuine inclusion of the non-drinking workforce
  • Significant enhancements in productivity.

For more information on alcohol in the workplace, or for impartial information and support if you’re concerned about your own drinking or someone else’s, see: alcoholchange.org.uk

Find out how to run a Dry January campaign in your workplace here 
Try the free Try Dry app that helps people set personalised alcohol-free goals for January and beyond here

Jane Gardiner is Senior consultancy & training manager at Alcohol Change UK



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