Alcohol and Work – A costly business

Guest blog post by Don Shenker, Founder and Director, Alcohol Health Network. 

Alcohol Health Network are a new social enterprise that aims to support businesses to promote alcohol awareness and reduce alcohol harm at work. Don can be contacted 

There are 36 million people in work in the UK and an estimated 25% of them will be drinking above recommended government guidelines. This may not pose a particular problem to many employees or their employer, but the bill for alcohol related absenteeism, loss of productivity and long-term sickness off work costs UK businesses £6.4 billion every year[i]. A national poll commissioned by Aviva found that a third of employees admitted to being at work with a hangover, 15% to being drunk at work. One in ten said this happened once a month, 20% said once a week. According to Australian research, sectors most at risk appear to be hospitality, construction and financial services, with managers and professionals found to be among high-risk groups[ii].

Far from being ‘down and outs’, alcohol treatment specialists know that the majority of problem drinkers are actually in employment but do not seek help or treatment – until it’s too late. This is probably due to two reasons – firstly, while drinking above recommended levels carries health risks the symptoms of alcohol misuse can remain undetected for some time. This means heavy drinkers can still work as normal, appear to be their usual selves and even do well at work.

In organisations where drinking is part of the culture, it may appear wholly normal that colleagues drink both moderately or heavily together and turn up to work the next day, possibly complaining of a sore head. This is par for the course in what I would call a ‘pro-drinking’ culture such as ours and across Europe where drinking levels are the highest in the world. Drinking among colleagues – or a circle of colleagues – is therefore seen as culturally acceptable and valued. However, if the drinking is at risky levels, then organisations need to reflect on how to tackle this, as alcohol misuse among staff is known to affect one in six workers, alongside mental health and drug problems[iii].  The other trend is for employees to simply drink at home after work, enjoying a relaxing drink after the pressures of the day. In this situation it is often difficult to keep track of the number of units consumed and home servings can be more generous than pub measures.

The second reason why problem drinkers can continue undetected at work is that for many the stigma of acknowledging a problem with alcohol prevents people from discussing it. The last thing an employee would want to acknowledge to their employer is that they have a drink problem. It may also be hard to discuss this openly with colleagues or even friends or family. The evidence shows however that the longer heavy drinking occurs, the more likely that drinking will become habitual or even dependent. People who are already drinking at moderate to higher levels can often turn to heavier drinking when faced with stressful life events such as marriage difficulties, stress or problems at work or financial worries.

HR and Occupational Health professionals charged with improving health and wellbeing at work, will be all too familiar with cases of alcohol abuse in the workplace. The problem is they usually only get to know about this when the drinking has already reached a critical point and employees’ work is now being affected by alcohol. Disciplinary action may now be needed and the chance of retaining that employee at work is now reduced.

There is an evidence-based solution to this. Using standardised NICE-recommended alcohol screening tools not only supports greater personal understanding and awareness of the risks of heavy drinking, but it also prompts heavy drinkers to cut down through greater self-awareness.  Evidence of effectiveness in using alcohol screening in primary health care settings is now well established[iv] – there is growing evidence that using this same approach as a preventative measure in workplaces is also proven to reduce rates of problem drinking[v].

There is no reason why the workplace cannot also be a place where employees are able to discover if their drinking is within government guidelines. Employers have long supported staff to stop smoking, check blood pressure and get fit. Alcohol shouldn’t be left off the list.

The Public Health Responsibility Deal’s Health at Work Network now includes an Alcohol at Work sub-group, led by Dame Carol Black, which I sit on – it will shortly be producing products and packages for businesses to support alcohol harm reduction at work. This will hopefully make it easier for companies to pass on information and advice for staff on healthier drinking – and to support those staff who want to cut down.

[i] Instititute of Alcohol Studies Factsheet (2009) Alcohol and the Workplace

[ii] Pidd, K. Roche, A.M. and Buisman-Pijlman, F. (2011) Intoxicated workers: findings from a national Australian study. Addiction, 106, 1623-1633.

[iii] Seymour L. (2010) Common mental health problems at work. What we now know about successful interventions. A progress review. BOHRF/Sainsburys centre for mental health

[iv] Kaner E, Beyer F, Dickinson H, Pienaar E, Campbell F, Schlesinger C, et al. Effectiveness of brief alcohol interventions in primary care populations. Cochrane Database Syst Rev2007;(2):CD004148.

[v] Bayley M, Annand F, Stone K, Herring R and Thom B, (2011),  North London Alcohol Hub Identification and Brief Advice (IBA) workplace pilot research – A feasibility study into delivering IBA within workplace settings Final evaluation report, Middlesex University


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