Alcohol and lockdown could be a dangerous cocktail for employees
The coming months are likely to be a struggle for problem drinkers in your workforce and around the country. The long winter period is rolling in, with grey days, dark nights and lockdowns keeping us indoors. Many are already finding this time isolating and depressing.
Add to that the challenges of home working, with little structure and without the social norms that might prevent daytime drinking, and you have a dangerous cocktail that all employers should consider and address.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the number of people drinking at high risk levels has doubled since lockdown. And while it’s positive that a significant number of people have reduced their drinking in recent months – there’s less opportunity for a quick 5pm pint with colleagues when you’re working from your spare room – many of those who are drinking more now were already drinking heavily before lockdown hit.
It’s hard to quantify the impact of problem drinking and alcohol dependency. The CIPD estimates that between 3 and 5 per cent of all workplace absence can be attributed to alcohol. If you include some of the side effects of alcohol the figure is likely to be far higher. Alcohol is closely linked to many cancers and liver conditions, which can lead to extended periods of sickness absence. It is also linked to poor mental health and relationship issues, which again can impact an employee’s productivity or ability to function in a particular role.
Employer attitudes to alcohol have changed significantly over the years. In some sectors – such as in the City – excessive drinking with clients and colleagues was not only tolerated, but was for a long time a fact of life. That’s now changing rapidly.
Other sectors have always been required to take a zero-tolerance approach, for obvious reasons. If you’re driving a truck, operating heavy machinery or working with vulnerable people, there is no ‘acceptable’ alcohol level. For many organisation, testing is routine and straightforward.
Of course, employers need to strike a sensible risk-based approach. Drinking alcohol in moderation outside of work shouldn’t be judged by an employer. Many of us enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or at a pub with colleagues. Drinking within the Government guidelines is unlikely to lead to serious health issues for most.
But what are some of the actions an employer can take to support their employees who may be problem drinking or dealing with alcohol dependency? With Alcohol Awareness Week around the corner, here are four suggestions:
1. Accept that problem drinking is a business issue, and line managers can’t brush it aside as something too personal or embarrassing to raise. While awkward, alcohol can have a real and detrimental impact on an employee’s professional and personal life. Consider raising it as part of a regular discussion on employee wellbeing, and highlight resources and support rather than necessarily linking it to a disciplinary issue.
2. Make sure your business has a clear alcohol policy in place. This brings the topic into the open and ensures colleagues understand both their obligations and the support available. On an upcoming edition of my ‘Talking Work and Health’ podcast, Lauren Booker of Alcohol Change UK advises HR leaders to involve colleagues in the creation of a new policy, to make sure it is suitable to your business and has cross-business buy-in.
3. Consider whether your team socials, both in-person and remote, are too focused on alcohol. For problem drinkers and non-drinkers alike, socials at a pub may be problematic or exclusionary. At a time when in-person gatherings are out of the question for most of us, try different ideas for remote socials based on employee feedback.
4. HR teams should make sure that colleague can access helpful resources and promote campaigns that raise awareness of the topic. Alcohol Change UK has both a unit tracker to monitoring drinking and a ‘check your drinking’ tool to help people understand their levels of drinking in a confidential and straightforward way. Think about promoting Dry January or similar initiatives internally, and engage your occupational health team if helpful.