Deaths from alcohol-related liver disease are increasing at a time when death rates from all other chronic conditions are falling. This statement, taken from the evidence-based alcohol strategy for the UK Health First, tells us two things.
Firstly, the issue of substance misuse within society as a whole is not about to become any less significant, and secondly, the potential impact of this on the workplace and economy as a whole has probably never been greater.
When it comes to more recent problems involving drug misuse and so-called ‘legal highs’, employers and the public in general remain somewhat in the dark regarding the extent of their effects. Our tendency to normalise the use of alcohol in society generally also presents an ongoing potential for its misuse to slip under the radar of employers who are less likely to see it as a serious problem.
Weekend binge drinking in particular has become a staple story for the British media in recent years and our love of the ‘odd tipple’ is certainly nothing new.
Indeed, research conducted by Norwich Union five years ago showed 77 per cent of employers actually believed alcohol to be the number one threat to employee wellbeing contributing to sickness and absenteeism, and in the same study a third of those questioned admitted having been to work with a hangover.
From an HR perspective a dedicated drug and alcohol policy, although still not a legal requirement, has been introduced by an increasing number of companies keen to defend their position as a reputable employer within the modern world.
Yet, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, alcohol-related sickness absence is still estimated to cost the UK economy up to £1.8billion per annum – which also tells us there is much still to be done to improve the holistic support of employees before employers can truly feel the benefit financially.
Although I am often asked to help organisations provide appropriate care and support for employees facing alcohol issues, a large focus of my work at Alcohol Concern is about encouraging workplaces to develop policies and practices that can prevent alcohol from becoming a problem in the first place. It’s also a subject I’ll delve into further at this year’s Drugs at Work conference by Synergy Health.
One of Synergy’s own surveys, conducted with 200 businesses this month, actually found over 87 per cent of employers have a zero tolerance for alcohol in the workplace, even though over a fifth (12.5 per cent) have no alcohol or drugs policy in place at all.
So there is clearly a gap between how employers believe they are set up to deal with the problem and its potential effects on their business, and what kind of systems they actually have in place to effectively enforce such an approach.
That’s why Alcohol Concern has developed a range of tools, from webinars to in-house training, to help companies choose an option that suits them, and is exploring the use of on-line tools to help organisations engage with and understand alcohol misuse as a workplace issue more fully.
It is common sense to have an alcohol and a drugs policy in place in a bid to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity, but a wholly supportive and rounded holistic approach is also essential to truly improve morale and ultimately cut costs for any business.
It’s important to remember that as an employer, or as a key adviser on such matters within your organisation, creating a holistic support package that can help your employees to help themselves is all part of improving the bottom line too.
Effective engagement, both with regards to addressing those issues faced by the employer and employee, is absolutely not about detecting and punishing. We have to foster openness and honesty if we are to really help and support employees for the benefit of all parties concerned.
There is certainly growing interest surrounding alcohol and drugs misuse within the workplace, but research shows there is still a way to go in advising, supporting and ultimately understanding employees and the issues they may be struggling with.
This is the first time I have been involved in the Drugs at Work conference, which is being run in both London and Manchester this year, and I’m really looking forward to hearing directly from employers in all sectors about their experiences of drugs and alcohol within the workplace.
Only through deeper engagement and a greater dialogue between major employers and organisations such as Alcohol Concern, which exist to improve the way we perceive and deal with substance misuse generally, will we begin to bring the figures I have previously quoted down, bringing huge benefits to the economy and society as a whole.
Lauren Booker, Workplace Programme Manager at Alcohol Concern and speaker at the 2014 Drugs at Work conference