Lauren Booker: Dealing with alcohol misuse at work

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haw-week-badgeDeaths 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 in 2014, 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.

Legal highs

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 percent 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.

Alcohol and HR

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 £1.8 billion 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.

One of Synergy’s own surveys, conducted with 200 businesses, actually found over 87 percent of employers have a zero tolerance for alcohol in the workplace, even though over a fifth (12.5 percent) have no alcohol or drugs policy in place at all.

Unclear policies

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. It is exploring the use of online 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.

Open communication

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 drug 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.

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 down the figures I have previously quoted, which will allow for huge benefits to the economy and society as a whole.

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2 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Good article, there are certain roles where alcohol misuse could have a catastrophic effect, so HR needs to be involved. I also think employee morale is also affected when a staff member is either under the influence or off work due to a hangover, their absence impacting on other colleagues as they have to pick up their workload on their behalf. Employers need to treat with the right approach: using alcohol so heavily could be a sign of other issues, perhaps related to work.

  2. Lauren, thank you for posting this article. As an executive coach who works with Presidents/CEOs who are in recovery from addiction, I see the need to keep the conversation going about the impact of addiction on a company’s bottom line. Unfortunately, there still remains a high level of stigma and denial about this topic which manifests in a deafening silence about a fatal disease. Let’s keep talking!

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