July 5, 2023

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Last orders? Should we call time on workplace drinking culture?

During Alcohol Awareness Week, Janet Hadley, Director at Choose Sunrise, says it’s time to rethink the culture around drinking and the workplace.

“Fancy a drink?”

In our society, alcohol has become deeply ingrained as a reward, stress reliever, and social lubricant. This week is Alcohol Change UK’s Alcohol Awareness Week and the theme is Alcohol and Cost, so we’ll be delving into an often overlooked aspect: the cost of alcohol consumption on employers, taking in absence, productivity, mental health, safety risks, and the strategies employers should adopt to mitigate these costs.

Absence and productivity

Alcohol Change UK estimate that there are 167,000 working years are lost to alcohol each year, at a cost of around £1.2bn to UK employers. With an estimated 3-5% of all absences being alcohol-related, it’s perhaps puzzling to find that many employers continue to use alcohol as the go-to reward and promote booze-fuelled functions, with one in five workers (20%) experiencing pressure to drink from co-workers.

Alcohol and mental health

Many of us enjoy a drink, I know I certainly used to. It wasn’t until I decided to take a break from drinking that I noticed how much my alcohol consumption had been impacting my mental health. I’ve since learned that alcohol is strongly linked to numerous mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, and increased stress levels.

Research from Deloitte reveals a sharp increase post-pandemic in the cost to employers of poor mental health, now around £56bn in 2020-2, compared to £45bn pre-pandemic. Yet very few employers include any education about alcohol in their wider wellbeing programmes, and fewer still provide any resources to help employees reset their relationship with alcohol.

Alcohol and workplace safety

Beyond its impact on mental health, alcohol consumption poses significant risks to safety in the workplace. Impaired judgment, reduced coordination, and slowed reaction times are just a few of the immediate dangers alcohol can introduce to the workplace. Institute of Alcohol Studies estimates that 40% of workplace accidents are alcohol related. We’re not necessarily talking about drinking on duty: blood alcohol levels the morning after can seriously impair performance.

A report by Aviva found that a third of employees admitted to having been to work with a hangover, 15% reported having been drunk at work , 1 in 10 reported hangovers at work once a month; 1 in 20 once a week. The survey asked participants to report the impact of these hangovers on their work:

  • 36% of employees find it hard to concentrate
  • 35% of employees find they are less productive
  • 42% feel tired to the point of being very sleepy
  • A quarter do the minimum amount of work and go home as soon as possible
  • Nearly one in 10 makes lots of mistakes which they need to rectify.

Is it time for you to take a look a the alcohol culture in your workplace?

Creating an Alcohol Safe Workplace®

To promote a safer and healthier work environment, employers need to take a comprehensive approach to the alcohol culture. A whole organisation strategy is needed, with the key elements being:

Alcohol policy
A good policy clearly outlines expectations, consequences, and support systems available for employees. This policy should also address the use of alcohol during work-related events or social gatherings, the rules around expenses and alcohol, and make it clear that those who disclose an alcohol use disorder will be offered support (rather than defaulting to punitive measures).

Raise awareness about the potential risks of alcohol consumption and its impact on mental health and safety. Train line managers on how to spot (and act upon) an emerging issue and encourage them to get comfortable having difficult conversations.

Provide support
Offer confidential specialist counselling services for alcohol use issues. Check your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for exclusions – you might be surprised to learn that issues relating to addiction are often in exclusion clauses, meaning employees are denied crucial early stage, preventative support.

Cultural cues
Is a free bar the only treat on offer? Do you make sure there are respectful alcohol-free options at all your events? Do you send out bottles of fizz to celebrate milestones? What messages are your employees getting about alcohol from the senior leadership team? Are there any sober role models for your colleagues to get inspired by? Cultural change takes time; what steps can you take today to make it a little bit easier for people in your workplace to choose a healthier relationship with alcohol?

Last orders?

By transforming workplace drinking culture, employers have the power to reduce alcohol-related harm and create inclusive work environments. It’s time to prioritise a cultural shift where the benefits of sobriety are acknowledged and celebrated. Through measures such as alcohol-free drink offerings, policy review, training, and support for individuals, employers can promote healthier habits and support their employees on the path to positive change.

About the Choose Sunrise Alcohol Safe Workplace® Accreditation

An Alcohol Safe Workplace® has a culture that includes everybody, whether they are a drinker or not, and creates a safe space where people can explore their own relationship with alcohol, without judgement. People who work in an Alcohol Safe Workplace® feel safe to ask for help if they need it and receive appropriate support.

To achieve the Accreditation, employers must meet a set of 12 standards that will significantly reduce their risks around alcohol related accidents, grievances and costs. The programme benefits employees at both ends of the alcohol spectrum, promoting sober inclusion as well as creating an environment where it’s OK to ask for help with alcohol use.

Changing the culture is not a quick tick box exercise. It requires sustained behavioural change across a large population of people and that’s exactly what our bespoke and comprehensive packages deliver.

Find out more at https://alcoholsafeworkplace.co.uk/asw

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