Countering alcohol abuse will improve productivity

On any given day, 200,000 British workers turn up for work hungover. Picture: Sean Bell
On any given day, 200,000 British workers turn up for work hungover. Picture: Sean Bell
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Leadership style can cause stress in the office, says Evelyn Gillan

DESPITE media headlines suggesting otherwise, it is people in employment, particularly those in office-based jobs, who are more likely to drink during the week and to drink to a greater extent than those who are unemployed.

One in four employees in any large workforce typically drink above the low risk guidelines (more than 14 units a week for women and more than 21 units a week for men), increasing their risk of ill-health, taking time off work and even loss of employment.

A survey by YouGov found that on any given day, 200,000 British workers turn up for work hungover, with respondents admitting that this directly impacts on their productivity and safety in the workplace.

It is estimated that alcohol cost the Scottish economy £865 million in 2007. This includes unemployment, premature death, absenteeism and presenteeism (the issue of people attending work, but where there is reduced activity and productivity).

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 stipulates that no staff member should be allowed to work when under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. In some industries, workplace drug and alcohol testing is mandatory.

A raised blood-alcohol level while at work jeopardises both efficiency and safety by increasing the likelihood of mistakes, errors of judgment and accidents.

Although there are no official figures for the number of workplace accidents attributable to alcohol, the International Labor Organisation estimate that it could be up to 40 per cent.

Heavy drinking can have a long-term effect on employee work performance, including sickness absence, inefficiency, poor decision-making and damaged customer relations.

It can also have negative effects on the mood in the workplace and on an organisation’s image. All of this can impact on companies’ profitability. In the UK, the highest risks of dying from alcohol-related problems are found in bar staff and publicans, who are twice as likely to die from alcohol as other workers.

In some working cultures, there may be a pressure to drink as a way of socialising or doing business, but for most people it’s not acceptable to drink alcohol during the working day. In certain jobs, where someone has to operate machinery, or where their role involves caring for others, working under the influence of alcohol could be dangerous. An alcohol-free workplace protects the employer and employee. Work environment predictors of alcohol problems include long hours, high physical demands, monotonous work, tight deadlines, poor supervision and job insecurity.

So what can employers do to minimise the impact of alcohol on their workplaces? The first step is to develop, implement and communicate an alcohol policy which outlines the process for dealing with alcohol issues. Anyone experiencing alcohol problems should feel they have the support of their employer to seek help to deal with their drinking.

As well as benefiting the employer and employees, addressing alcohol problems in the workplace can also generate knock-on benefits for family and friends and the wider community: the impact of the social and health costs to others from someone else’s heavy drinking are as large as the costs for the drinkers themselves.

Scotland was one of 13 European countries which took part in the recent European Workplace and Alcohol (EWA) project. The findings from across Europe indicate that while alcohol consumption has a very negative impact on work, workplace interventions can help change attitudes, raise awareness and change drinking behaviour among the workforce.

It also found that alcohol interventions are well received and valued by both employers and employees. EWA made four recommendations for companies and organisations: adopt a comprehensive workplace alcohol policy; implement alcohol and general health awareness programmes; review working practices and leadership styles which can cause work-related stress and potentially lead to heavy drinking; and pro-actively make workplaces “alcohol-free”.

• Dr Evelyn Gillan is chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland


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