Trade secrets: dealing with alcohol problems at work

Party time: the effects of alcohol can encroach on working hoursThe effects of drinking alcohol can encroach into our working hours, especially at this time of year. Even if you just have one drink at lunchtime, it is easy to consume three units of alcohol in one glass, particularly with wine.

Employees have an individual responsibility to take reasonable care of themselves and others who could be affected by their actions in the workplace. On average it takes about one hour to process one unit of alcohol. So if a worker drank a large glass of wine, it would take three hours for their bloodstream to be free of alcohol.

To some, four glasses of wine would not be considered excessive, particularly one at lunchtime and three glasses in the evening. However, if you are drinking a 15%-proof bottle of wine, four 250ml glasses contain a staggering 15 units, which would take 15 hours to leave your bloodstream.

When compared with the sensible drinking guidelines, this would be considered excessive. What’s more, tolerance increases with consumption, so more alcohol is required to feel the same effects.

Women unfortunately get the rough end of the deal. Their bodies do not metabolise alcohol as quickly as men’s do, and a woman would show a higher reading on a breathalyser test, having consumed the same amount of alcohol as a man.

Alcohol consumption has a very real effect on employee performance. Some will be affected rarely, some will be affected regularly, and some will be affected daily.

According to NHS figures, 60% of the population are not aware of the unit system and sensible drinking guidelines (see illustration, right). Employers need to take greater responsibility for raising employee awareness of the risks and concerns related to excessive alcohol consumption.

Identifying problem drinkers

Any worker who compromises safety as a result of alcohol consumption would be considered a problem drinker. Between 20% and 25% of accidents are alcohol-related, according to the World Health Organisation. Company drivers, for example, would probably benefit from drink-driving avoidance courses. High stress environments would also benefit from greater alcohol awareness, given that 34% of men and 27% of women use alcohol to cope with stress.

Safety is not the only concern. The relationship between alcohol and staff health and performance is more difficult to quantify. If alcohol is in the bloodstream during working hours, performance can be affected, and if an employee drinks beyond the sensible drinking guidelines, their health risks increase.

For employers there are two types of problem drinker. First, those who have a clearly identified drink problem, and are in need of intervention or treatment. Second, the so-called ‘social drinkers’, who cause problems at work as a result of their drinking. The second audience is more widely spread and difficult to identify. It may be small, consistent problems that are difficult to monitor or a major incident that is clearly a one-off. Providing relevant training, information and instruction is crucial in both cases.

Dealing with problem drinkers

Experts believe you should treat alcohol-related problems as a health issue first and only use disciplinary measures as a last resort or when safety is compromised. However, should this extend to hangovers and attendance issues? Awareness charity Alcohol Concern revealed earlier this year that staff took around 17 million sickies last year as a result of drinking.

The real truth is that the employee is probably unaware of how much alcohol they really consume and to what extent it affects them.

With improved awareness, employees would be better equipped to make informed decisions about their consumption and change their drinking style before employer intervention becomes necessary.

Here are three steps for dealing with employees who are underperforming due to excessive alcohol consumption:

  1. Where intervention becomes necessary, proceed as a health issue, clearly setting out a programme that is agreed on by both management and the employee.

  2. Where treatment becomes necessary, again proceed as a health issue, with a clear programme that has been agreed by both management and the employee.

  3. If the employee is involved in any alcohol-related incidents that introduce risk of significant harm to the individual or others, deal with this under the company’s disciplinary procedures.

Be proactive

The benefits of prevention include raising performance, improving health and increasing safety.

Every employer should have a written alcohol policy that is endorsed by senior directors. Provide this to each individual via the company handbook or a separate document. You could also ask employees to sign forms indicating that they have read and understood the policy. The information needs to be defined in simple terms, clearly stating what the repercussions would be if not adhered to.

Lunchtime drinking, the relationship between alcohol and stress, absenteeism and poor performance can all have a negative effect on the employer/employee relationship, and your company has the right to address these issues.

Empower your employees to make informed choices about their levels of consumption rather than enforcing hard-line policies. For example, consider using social marketing techniques (where you use traditional marketing techniques to promote a good cause) to support your alcohol policy in a non-threatening manner.

Next steps

Remember that a positive safety culture embraces the precept of prevention before intervention before treatment, and your most senior managers must endorse this.

Many organisations are already satisfying the Health and Safety Executive’s guidelines for a model alcohol policy. However, less common are employers proactively preventing alcohol problems.

Social marketing has proven to be most effective in preventative health campaigns – anti-smoking campaigns use it, and drink-driving campaigns use it.

Alcohol is an ill-health issue, and very difficult for employers to tackle on an individual basis. Motivate and encourage employee participation at all levels in being ‘responsible’ with regard to alcohol and healthy living, rather than expecting untrained managers to cope with issues as and when they arise.

For more on alcohol misuse and the workplace, turn to our legal Q&A

Calling time on the quick half pint

Drinking tales

How does alcohol affect staff in different industries? These testimonies show how.

Senior sales executive

“Alcohol put an enormous strain on my marriage and nearly destroyed it. It made me negative towards my work colleagues and bosses. It ruined my work effectiveness and, although I didn’t lose jobs, it was heading that way. It also put a big strain on my finances.

“Since I have addressed my alcohol issues, everyone around me is more relaxed and more trusting towards me.”

Factory worker

“I had loads of time off work. In the end they had to let me go. My mental health suffered, I had anxiety, depression and sleep loss. I had operations on my leg from falling over drunk. My relationships suffered. The job I was doing was very stressful: I had to have a drink to do it and after the shift I had to have a drink to get over it.”

Marketing manager

“I was quite lucky with my health but my work suffered. I didn’t lose my job but I certainly underperformed and my colleagues often covered up for me. I also used to drive to work and must have done so many times over the limit.

“People at work knew there was something wrong but they didn’t know it was alcohol-related. I guess I lost their respect, and being in a senior position this had major implications.

“I spent quite a lot on drink but, looking back, it was such a waste of money. It could have been better used.”

Bank manager

“I used to suffer with anxiety, never knowing what I had done when I had been drinking. I had excessive night sweating, was always hungover, overweight and smelly. I used to wet the bed on a regular basis and get warnings about my work. I was lucky not to get sacked.”

Causes for concern

There are as many facts around the effects of alcohol in the workplace as there are brands of booze. Here are a few:

  • Hangovers reduce producti­vity in the UK by 27% (Office of National Statistics)

  • Between 6% and 15% of all absence from work is alcohol-related (CBI)

  • 20% to 25% of accidents are alcohol-related (World Health Organisation)

  • 90% of workers in Scotland resent colleagues taking sickies because it increases their workload (BBC poll)

  • 34% of men and 26% of women use alcohol to cope with stress (Developing Patient Partnerships).

Our expert

Alan Williams is head of research for Alcohol Risk Factor. He has a masters degree in public health, and his career has included being a member of the police service, a health and safety inspector and a public health professional.

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