Hangover cure

On 24 November, most of the working population will have access to longer and later drinking in public, courtesy of the Licensing Act 2003. The change in the law could have a huge effect on employers, exacerbating problems such as absenteeism, lateness and workplace accidents.

HR departments need to revisit – or draw up – company alcohol policies and assess the risk to the business of staff having ‘one too many’ much closer to the beginning of the working day.

Last month, a survey by the Portman Group – the organisation dedicated to promoting responsible drinking – revealed that 63% of employees phone in sick after getting drunk, rather than turn up for work.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says excessive drinking also leads to problems with lower productivity, lateness, workplace accidents, poor morale and bad behaviour.

Between 11 and 17 million working days are lost each year because of excessive drinking and this costs the UK economy as much as 1.8bn every year, according to Alcohol Concern.

“We’ve seen increasing levels of people drinking to excess and the vast majority are of working age,” says Helen Symmons, a parliamentary officer at the charity. “The trends show more people suffering alcohol-related problems and, if there are more hours to drink in, this could increase.”

Excessive boozing costs businesses money and employers that do not have a policy on alcohol are more at risk, leaving managers facing some major dilemmas.

Research from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) shows that 20% of managers think problems caused by employee drinking have increased in recent years, while 60% have experienced some trouble in this area.

More than half believe all drinking should be outlawed during working hours because of its effect on employee performance.

A separate survey of almost 8,500 staff by recruitment website Reed.co.uk backs up the assertion that 24-hour drinking will increase the strain on employers, with most respondents saying it will further damage staff performance.

Half of those questioned believe the new licensing laws will harm productivity, while one-third suggest it is now more acceptable to turn up for work with a hangover.

Dr Sayeed Khan, an HSE commissioner and chief medical adviser to the EEF manufacturers organisation, says the problem has reached such proportions that the government is reviewing its guidance on alcohol.

“We have probably underestimated its impact on the workplace. Performance and absence are the main issues, but we should also think about employee health.

“Organisations should be gearing their reaction to helping people through rehabilitation, but there is a disciplinary aspect as well and this must be made very clear,” he says.

Khan says that later drinking hours could lead to people staying out later into the night and having less time to sleep off the effects of alcohol before returning to work.

“People won’t metabolise the same amount of alcohol before waking up for work the next morning. Although they may feel fine, the levels of alcohol in their blood could still be high,” he adds.

He says the situation could get worse as a younger generation, with a different attitude to alcohol consumption, moves into the workforce.

“We need far more research into the impact of alcohol on the workforce because the reality is that younger people have different attitudes to alcohol and drugs.”

How to prepare for 24-hr drinking

– Be proactive: don’t wait for the disciplinary hearing – CIPD research shows that most companies with a policy only introduced it after disciplinary action. As the new laws could increase the dangers for employers, it is vital that HR professionals introduce a policy so that they can follow established procedures

– Educate staff: employers should consider a health and safety awareness programme that encourages staff to seek help at the earliest stage before problems occur in the workplace

– Develop a policy: the Chartered Management Institute advises making a senior manager responsible for developing the policy, with staff representatives also playing a major role. Seek staff feedback and get endorsement from the top. The rules should match the needs of the organisation and be fair and reasonable

– Communicate: make use of the staff handbook, company intranet, seminars and inductions

– Provide training: all managers should receive training about dealing with the problem in line with the new policy

– Offer help: view alcohol, not the employee, as the problem. Disciplinary action should be a last resort rather than the main response. Employers should also consider providing counselling or rehabilitation

– Review: audit and review your alcohol policy regularly.

How to draw up an alcohol policy

Paul Quain, a barrister and member of the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA) management committee, explains how to devise an alcohol policy.

– Employers have a duty to their staff under the Health and Safety at Work Act, while staff must report to work in a fit state. Separate legislation covers workers in the transport sector, making it a criminal offence to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs

– The policy should stress that there is a need to protect corporate integrity, the public, staff and individuals who may have a problem. Employers are allowed to give any reasonable instructions about alcohol consumption, including a complete ban

– Some policies restrict staff from drinking, buying, selling or possessing alcohol. However, this does not mean you can just dismiss people if the rules are broken – the key is to apply them reasonably

– Rehabilitation should be a key part of any policy and employers must show a commit-ment to some kind of treatment or counsel-ling. This raises other serious considera-tions about confidentiality, data protection and statutory disciplinary procedures

– Many companies have a zero-tolerance policy, which is probably easier to enforce. It must be linked with proper investigations if the rules are broken and, above all, employers must act reasonably

– Dismissing an employee for a minor wrongdoing may be seen as unreasonable, so use alcohol policies fairly and sensibly

– Staff must give their consent to be tested for alcohol, although some employers now include it as part of the employment contract.

Zero tolerance strategy: London Underground

London Underground (LU) operates a strict alcohol policy because of the safety-critical nature of the organisation. The policy requires staff to complete their duties with no trace of alcohol or drugs.

LU does not allow staff to drink during working hours, or turn up after drinking in a way that could put them at risk. Safety-critical staff are subject to random testing, while those in uniform are not allowed to enter a pub or store alcohol on company premises.

The policy was introduced in 1993 after the Transport and Works Act made it an offence for safety-critical employees to work under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The legislation also gave LU a duty to check staff.

A spokesman for the HR team at LU says the policy is zero tolerance, although treatment and rehabilitation are a major part of it.
“All staff are required to present for work and undertake their duties with zero trace of alcohol or illegal substances. Staff are also subjected to random alcohol and drug testing,” he says.

“Staff who believe they may have an issue with drugs or alcohol are actively encouraged to seek professional assistance. The Drug and Alcohol Assessment Treatment Service treats about 100 new referrals per year. Of those, half will have problems so serious they have to stand down from safety-critical duties while they have treatment.”

The treatment has proved effective and about 80% of those people will return to their original jobs, with 85% still employed in the same role 12 months later. LU believes early intervention and significant support systems are critical to achieving high retention rates.

Alcohol – facts and figures

– 69% of women and 57% of men phone in sick for work as a result of drinking (The Portman Group)

– Between 11 and 17 million working days are lost due to alcohol (Alcohol Concern)

– Drink-related sickness and lost productivity is costing employers £2.8bn a year (Reed.co.uk)

– Contrary to popular belief, most people with a drink problem are in work (HSE report on workplace drinking)

– 55% of managers support random alcohol and drugs tests (CMI)

– Hangovers in the UK reduce productivity by 27% (Office for National Statistics)


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