A new method of managing alcohol-related issues at work provides employers with a set of tools to address the drinking habits of its workforce proactively and minimise the costs of any knock-on effects. Dr John McMahon explains.
News reports continually show the escalating problems of alcohol in the UK. In a report published in 2010, the charity Alcohol Concern estimated that young people attending accident and emergency departments due to alcohol-related incidents costs the NHS £19 million per year. Reports also suggest that most employers are unaware of the costs of their employees' drinking and the nature of those costs, and therefore fail to take effective action.
A new approach, SPREADE (Sensible Policies to Reduce the Effect of Alcohol and Drugs for Employers), was launched in November 2011 and is designed to help employers to manage drinking habits.
The latest official estimates place industry's bill for drinking at £6.4 billion. The average cost per employee is around £310 per year; thus, an employer with 100 employees is losing around £31,000 per year; an employer with 1,000 employees will lose around £310,000 per year. The average cost per employee is a more conservative estimate based only on loss of productivity due to absenteeism and presenteeism (being at work either under the influence of alcohol or with a hangover). These costs do not take into account replacement costs (permanent or temporary), time spent on disciplinary action or tribunals, accidents, low staff morale, etc. If we include these other factors the costs are much higher. Although these problems are well documented, only about 50% of employers have an alcohol policy to address the issue.
Dealing with drinkers
However, employers are not only unaware of the magnitude of the costs but also of the cause. In a small-scale survey carried out by SPREADE in September 2011 (Crisp Group, 2011), employers reported that they dealt with alcohol-related problems through disciplinary procedures. Some said that they had also arranged counselling. No employer said that they were proactive, providing education or alcohol-awareness campaigns. This finding is consistent with other surveys.
Although alcohol problems are well documented, only about 50% of employers have an alcohol policy to address the issue."
The most common approaches used by employers, such as counselling and disciplinary procedures, are appropriate for heavy/dependent drinkers. However, research is increasingly showing that this group is small (about 7% of employees) and while individually they have a disproportionate effect, in fact they are only responsible for 20% to 30% of the costs (Roche AM et al; 2008). The other 70% to 80% of the costs is caused by non-problem drinkers who take the occasional day off or come to work occasionally intoxicated or hungover. Although each employee has only a small effect, the cumulative effect of this group - the vast majority of the workforce - means that they account for most of the costs. Apart from the fact that the cost of disciplinaries and counselling for such a large group would be prohibitive, these approaches are generally ineffective with this group. Another approach is required, which is where SPREADE can help.
Dr John McMahon, the creator of SPREADE, has worked in the alcohol and drug abuse field for more than 25 years and suggests that many of our beliefs about alcohol use are both wrong and unhelpful. For example, even though most people believe that drinking is a social activity, many believe that alcohol abuse is a solitary or individual problem. This is not true. Most alcohol abuse is a product of the culture that is prevalent where the drinking takes place. To illustrate, research has found that some workplaces and types of industry have much higher consumption than others (Mandell et al, 1992). Education tends to have low consumption (because employees work with children), whereas the hospitality trade tends to have high consumption (as alcohol is often freely available). Male-dominated industries also tend to be associated with higher consumption.
How can SPREADE help?
What is the drinking culture of your workplace like? Does it encourage/support drinking? How do you change the culture? SPREADE can help employers to address these types of questions, providing tools and information to help them become Alcohol Smart Employers (ASEs). ASEs are proactive rather than reactive, they know that by addressing their workforce's drinking they can achieve a happier, more stable workforce and save money. ASEs know that for every £1 they spend on addressing alcohol issues they can save money (estimates suggest between £3 and £17, ie a return on investment of 300% to 1,700%) (Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum, 2011).
The SPREADE approach utilises a website that contains a powerful suite of resources to help employers address alcohol issues in their workplace. The site contains an ever-growing library of articles about alcohol, drinking practices and, most important, what approaches are effective in changing the drinking culture of the workforce.
Most alcohol abuse is a product of the culture that is prevalent where the drinking takes place."
There is also a survey tool. This battery of questions has been written specially for SPREADE to provide employers with data about their workforce, what support exists for heavy drinking, drunkenness, absenteeism, etc. The survey is managed from a control panel within the website and the results of the survey, complete with a commentary on how to interpret them, is displayed within that control panel. This information is important in assisting employers in creating or amending the business's alcohol policy and making it relevant to the characteristics of that particular workforce and the prevailing drinking culture.
One of the most important tools to combat the costs of alcohol abuse in any employer's armoury is the alcohol policy. A clear and consistent alcohol policy that has been well communicated to the workforce is invaluable in changing the culture of the workplace. It clarifies whether or not alcohol is allowed and if so, when.
However, it is usually best practice to involve the workforce or their representatives in creating any new policy. It can make the policy more relevant to the real nature of the workplace conditions and can also make it easier to gain acceptance for the policy from the wider workforce, a factor that is important in making the policy workable and enforceable.
Utilising SPREADE resources
SPREADE has two resources to help create an alcohol policy. There is a model policy that can be modified to make it more relevant to local conditions. There is also a workbook that organisations can use to ensure that the employer and the committee have addressed all of the issues that need to be considered to create a policy that is both acceptable and relevant.
If the workforce's drinking habits are going to change, then an education campaign is required. SPREADE provides resources for that campaign by giving employers materials, leaflets and posters, which were produced especially for the website.
Employees can find information about how they are affected by alcohol, alcohol units and how long alcohol stays in the blood stream. There is also some gender-specific information and leaflets about alcohol, health and accidents, as well as a quiz. The posters use a normative beliefs method that helps employees to compare their drinking behaviours with others. All materials, including instructions, can be printed direct from the website.
One of the most powerful resources of all is the Smart Drinking Assessment, which provides each worker with a confidential individual assessment of their drinking and advice about any required change. This tool, which was created in partnership with a major health board, is based on one of the most widely researched treatment approaches, having been tested in work situations in Australia, Canada, the US and, most recently, the UK, and has been found to be a highly effective method to reduce drinking, accidents and absenteeism while increasing productivity, staff morale and staff retention. SPREADE offers a fully automated online version that can be controlled from the control panel.
To deal with drinking effectively, and to save money that would ultimately be lost to reduced productivity, a more proactive approach is needed."
The final section of SPREADE contains a collection of resources for people who need more intensive help and support. This is targeted towards the more severe drinker and includes links to 24/7 Help Yourself, an award-winning website that has helped thousands to change their drinking habits. There is also a link to Bottled Up, a website for the partners of drinkers - a much neglected group. It is difficult for someone to concentrate on working if they have had little sleep due to a heavy-drinking partner. Bottled Up provides a programme to help them cope with their situation and even change it.
Modern employers need a modern approach to dealing with alcohol-related issues. Reacting to each case as it arises neglects the 80% of costs that are caused by non-dependent drinkers. To deal with drinking effectively, and to save money that would ultimately be lost to reduced productivity, a more proactive approach is needed. SPREADE aims to provide the information and tools to become ASEs, save money for the business and improve the health and culture of the workplace and the wider environment.
Dr John McMahon is the creator of SPREADE. He has more than 25 years of experience in the alcohol and drug abuse field.
Crisp Group September 2011. "Market research on the acceptability of SPREADE to the market place". Unpublished survey.
Mandell W, Eaton WW, Anthony JC, Garrison R (1992). "Alcoholism and occupations: a review and analysis of 104 occupations" in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research; 16(4):pp.734-746.
Roche AM et al (2008). "Workers' drinking patterns: the impact on absenteeism in the Australian workplace" in Addiction; 103:pp.738-748.
Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum (2011). "Alcohol, work and productivity". European Commission of Public Health.
XpertHR provides a model policy and procedure to outline the company's rules on drug and alcohol abuse at work and the steps to taken to reduce the associated health and safety risks.