The health dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, from organ damage to a weakening of the body’s immune system, have been well publicised, but the impact of lost productivity on businesses is often overlooked.
Employers can ill afford to ignore the issue however with a recent study by Willis PMI Group highlighting the extent of the problem, particularly among younger workers.
Almost one in five (17 per cent) 18 to 34-year-olds have admitted going to work with a hangover that has caused them to be less productive on at least 30 occasions in the past 12 months. What’s more, more than a quarter (26 per cent) in this age group claimed their employer contributes to unhealthy levels of drinking.
In addition to the productivity hit caused by hangovers, alcohol-related sick days are estimated to cost employers around £1.7bn1. As a consequence, businesses should consider taking steps to identify whether or not alcohol is causing a problem to their employees’ health and to business productivity.
HR records on sickness absence, productivity, accidents and disciplinaries may offer helpful insights into this process. Managers can also be trained, where necessary, to recognise problems and pinpoint trends.
Some companies, particularly those operating in high risk and safety-critical industries, use screening and testing to identify and control alcohol misuse. General employee health checks however can also help by providing early warnings to developing conditions. Such checks can cover everything from ECG, blood pressure and cholesterol test to lung and liver function, providing an accurate picture of the overall health of the subject.
Communication is key
Tackling the drinking habits of employees can be challenging but good communication is key with an agreed alcohol policy being a sensible starting point – a move recommended by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Providing information about alcohol and health to staff may also help encourage sensible drinking outside working hours. More effort, it seems, need to be made in this area with only 16 per cent of workers saying their employer offers health advice on alcohol consumption.
Advice and guidance on attitudes towards alcohol and sensible drinking can be included in a company’s health and wellbeing strategy.
The Institute of Alcohol Studies has highlighted work environment predictors for “problematic drinking” that include long working hours, tight deadlines, high physical demands, and job insecurity. Alcohol Concern meanwhile points out that alcohol is integral to doing business and workforce socialising for some organisations.
These assertions are supported by the Willis PMI Group research findings. In light of this, employers would be wise to review their workplace culture and conditions to ensure they’re not inadvertently stoking the flames of alcohol misuse.
Given the relationship between stress and alcohol misuse, stress risk assessments are advisable.
Such assessments would involve looking at issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment, support provided by the organisation, management and colleagues, and workplace relationships. Stress management strategies should then set out to address any failings in these areas.
A helping hand
Employees with alcohol-related problems, as with any other medical or psychological condition, have a right to confidentiality and support. Interventions, such as EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) services, can help in this respect.
EAPs provide access to experienced counsellors and a 24/7 telephone helpline, allowing employees to discuss any issues in confidentiality whenever they feel the need for support. It means staff can obtain expert advice from trained professionals for issues they don’t feel comfortable discussing with their manager.
This latest Willis PMI study has fired a warning shot across the bows of managers and HR departments – alcohol consumption among workers should be taken seriously.
Companies increasingly recognise that a healthy workforce can mean a healthy bottom line. By considered alcohol misuse as part of their wider health and wellbeing programmes, businesses can reap the rewards of a healthier, more productive, workforce.
1.Home Office (November 2012), 'Impact Assessment on a minimum unit price for alcohol'