Mike Blake, Director at Willis PMI Group, examines health risk management options for employers as research reveals the business impact of binge drinking.
Alcohol’s negative impact on public health has become well trodden ground over the past year.
From the UK Chief Medical Officer’s decision to cut recommended drinking limits to proposed restrictions on alcohol advertising, debate has raged over the need to curb alcohol consumption due to associated health risks.
And the workplace should not be excluded from this debate.
Although excessive alcohol consumption is viewed largely as a social problem, there are implications for business that should not be ignored. Clearly, health complications related to alcohol consumption – from organ damage to a weakening of the body’s immune system – can affect sickness absence but the issues of lost productivity and risks to safety are often overlooked.
The effect of alcohol on the workplace
A recent study by Willis PMI Group highlighted the extent of the problem, revealing this is an issue which should be given careful consideration by health and safety professionals and employers alike.
The research found 37 per cent of UK workers admit going to work with a hangover that has affected their productivity within the past 12 months. This problem is particularly acute among younger workers, as 50 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds admit to suffering a hangover that has affected productivity and 17 per cent say this has happened at least 30 times over the past year.
In addition to the productivity hit caused by hangovers, alcohol-related sick days are estimated to cost employers around £1.7bn1.
This is before even considering the impact alcohol consumption and hangovers might have on a worker’s ability to do their job safely. If judgment and skills are impaired, this puts staff at greater risk, particularly in jobs that require the operation of vehicles or heavy machinery.
A proactive approach to the problem
As a consequence, businesses should consider taking steps to identify whether or not alcohol is causing a problem to their employees’ health and to business productivity.
HR records on sickness absence, productivity, accidents and disciplinaries may offer helpful insights into this process.
For particularly high risk and safety-critical industries, screening and testing are key tools for identifying and controlling alcohol misuse but there are steps that can be taken to address any issues before they develop into serious problems.
General employee health checks are extremely useful for flagging developing health issues, allowing them to be addressed before they result in sickness absence. Such checks can cover everything from ECG, blood pressure and cholesterol to lung and liver function, providing an accurate picture of the overall health of the subject.
On top of this, employee health risk assessments can also be conducted to develop a clearer picture of employees’ lifestyles. These are relatively straightforward and can even be completed online by the employee. They can give useful indications of higher risk within the employee population.
Taking a delicate approach
Alcohol consumption and drinking habits can be a sensitive issue. Many staff might see employer intervention in this area as an unnecessary incursion into their private lives, so good communication and a careful approach are important.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends putting a defined alcohol policy in place and this certainly represents a good starting point. But, further than this, it is important to establish the right culture within an organisation.
Yet, the Willis PMI Group study found only 16 per cent of all UK workers claim their employer offers them health advice around alcohol consumption. So it appears a gap has formed, both in terms of education and healthcare provision.
Advice and guidance on attitudes towards alcohol and sensible drinking can be included in a company’s health and wellbeing strategy, while regular workshops and communications can help to achieve a shift in culture.
Support for stress-related issues
The link between alcohol misuse and stress or mental illness should also be examined. The Institute of Alcohol Studies has highlighted work environment predictors for “problematic drinking” that include long working hours, tight deadlines, high physical demands, and job insecurity.
Given this relationship, stress risk assessments are advisable and would involve looking at issues such as workload, work patterns, work environment, support provided by the organisation, management and colleagues, and workplace relationships. Stress management strategies should then set out to address any failings in these areas.
Employees with alcohol-related problems, as with any other medical or psychological condition, have a right to confidentiality and support.
This is where employee benefits such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can help. EAPs provide access to experienced counsellors and a 24/7 telephone helpline, allowing employees to discuss any issues in confidentiality whenever they feel the need for support. It means staff can obtain expert advice from trained professionals for issues they don’t feel comfortable discussing with their manager.
Whatever action is taken, the approach should be a multi-faceted one that combines education with analysis and support.
Attempts to tackle the impact of excessive alcohol consumption will be most effective when forming part of a proactive approach to employee healthcare that encourages staff to lead healthier lives.
If businesses achieve this, they can reap the rewards of a healthier, more productive, workforce and a safer working environment.
1Home Office (November 2012), ‘Impact Assessment on a minimum unit price for alcohol’
Mike Blake is a Director at Willis PMI Group.
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