Why ask staff about drinking in the workplace?

22 Feb

First, a bit about me: I’ve worked in alcohol addictions, counselling, policy and research for   over 20 years. I’m now interested in how to support employers and employees to reduce alcohol harm through the workplace.

I’d like to start with an overview: 36 million people are in work in the UK and we know that the majority of problem drinkers are also in employment and do not seek help or treatment. 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 increased-risk or high-risk 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 increased risk levels, then organisations need to reflect on how to tackle this, as alcohol misuse among staff is bad for business. 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 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 a simple solution to this. There is now excellent evidence that simply asking people about their drinking – using standardised alcohol screening tools – in a non-confrontational way supports greater understanding and awareness of the risks of heavy drinking, prompting at-risk drinkers to cut down through greater self-awareness alone. The AUDIT tool (covered in this blog earlier in the year) has been recommended by NICE for practitioners to use. There is no reason why the workplace cannot also be a place where staff 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 seems to have been left off the list.

HR and Occupational Health professionals have a unique opportunity to think through how these conversations can be promoted at work and I’ll be blogging about this issue in the weeks and months to come.

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