Spotlight on: alcohol and work

During the warmer summer months, the temptation is greater than ever to escape the office at lunchtime for a cold beer.

But research by insurer Royal & SunAlliance reveals that around one-quarter of accidents in the workplace are caused by alcohol, and that employers believe alcohol affects both absenteeism and productivity. The research suggests that as many as one in six Britons is under the influence at work.

Preventing abuse

So how can HR professionals help manage the impact of alcohol on the business? Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says HR should remind staff of the organisation’s alcohol policy so they understand what is defined as acceptable consumption.

“Alcohol testing is only allowed under the Data Protection Act for firms where safety is critical to the job and there is a zero-tolerance policy to alcohol,” he says. “But if an employee is not performing to their usual level, behaving unusually and their breath smells of alcohol, it is reasonable to assume they have been drinking, and action can be taken.

“Line managers can then talk to the employee armed with this evidence,” he says.

Howard Lyons, managing director of Alcohol Risk Factor, which provides alcohol awareness information, says employers have a responsibility to demonstrate due diligence.

“It isn’t about learning to spot the problem drinker,” he says. “It’s about employers and employees rethinking the way alcohol interferes with workplace activities, and working together to achieve safer, healthier and more productive environments.”

Culture problem

Organisations can be more prone to alcohol problems where a drinking culture exists. However, this is no excuse to turn a blind eye, says Lyons.

“Any company with an accepted binge-drinking culture needs to consider its position urgently and implement actions to reduce the negative outcomes,” he says.

David Brown, HR director at the Sportsman newspaper, says there is a definite drinking culture there.

“Traditionally, newspapers are tough environments with long hours. Staff tend to socialise together and have long lunches to break up their day. Alcohol plays a big part in this,” he says.

Employees at the Sportsman are not allowed to work their shift if they are considered to be drunk.

“We don’t set an alcohol limit, but ask that people are sensible and act responsibly,” says Brown.

He has also introduced zero tolerance to the knock-on effects of alcohol.

“If someone becomes abusive, they would be dealt with appropriately and could be sent home to sober up and disciplined on their return to work,” he says.

More acute problems can occur if staff develop alcohol dependency, and Brown says it should be the line manager’s role to identify this.

“We issued guidance to managers on what to look for should members of their team have drink-related issues. We openly support anyone who wishes to seek professional help,” he says.

However, Lyons stresses that alcohol is an issue for all – HR, occupational health and line managers. “It needs to become an integral part of a company’s positive safety culture,” he advises.

Managing alcohol at work

  • Introduce an alcohol policy, including details of disciplinary actions and available help.
  • Explain why the policy exists.
  • Train managers to identify and approach staff who are drunk or have an alcohol problem.

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