According to Alcoholics Anonymous, there are an estimated 1.4 million people living in the UK who are dependent on alcohol. That’s about 5% of the working population and largely relates to those in employment. So, just what is the employer’s role in managing and supporting alcohol related issues in the workplace?

With Dry January almost done, an estimated 1 in 6 people are taking the opportunity to give their bodies a break from the booze and to reflect on their drinking habits, perhaps choosing to make some more permanent lifestyle changes at the end of the month. In fact, the results are impressive with 65% of participants continuing to reduce their drinking six months after completing a dry month. For anyone currently participating, the end is in sight!

There is no denying the huge impact that alcohol has on our society and the economy. According to Alcohol Concern, drinking alcohol is the main cause of death and illness in the UK, after only obesity and smoking; 9 million people in England drink more than the recommended daily limits of alcohol; the NHS bill for treating alcohol related illness is £3.5billion every year.   In the workplace, alcohol related absence costs the economy £7.3billion in lost workdays and productivity costs, including hangover days and long term sickness absence from alcohol related illnesses. So, the figures speak for themselves. Like it or not, alcohol related issues impact on the workplace, both in social and economic terms. The employer therefore has a crucial role in picking up signs of alcohol dependence and helping to support people through addiction and treatment. Simply put, the employer’s duties are to map out boundaries of acceptable behaviour and to offer support when things go off track.

That said, it can be a complicated and sensitive path to navigate. Most people will realise that it’s unacceptable to turn up to work drunk or have a few vinos at their desk. But there can be blurred lines when it comes to drinking during work breaks and at work functions. Is it ok to have a glass of wine if you take a client to lunch? Is it rude not to if they are drinking? Having a clear policy on alcohol consumption in the workplace will offer guidance to everyone about what is acceptable in your business.

Above all, employees with a drinking problem have the same rights to confidentiality and support as they would if they had any other medical or psychological condition and so should be offered assistance rather than judgement. People may find it hard to admit, even to themselves, let alone others, that they have a drinking problem and you may need to bring in some expert help to provide the right support.

Some companies have adopted a zero tolerance approach to any substance abuse and conduct regular on the spot testing for drugs and alcohol. In certain industries this is, of course, a must: any driving related positions or machine operation for example. In practice it’s actually easier to administer a zero tolerance approach, as the consequences of having alcohol in your system at work are clearly understood. But such an extreme approach is not necessary in all industries.

If you are going to mix alcohol into the work environment, it’s worth noting that work social events are deemed an extension of work so the employer has a duty of care to provide a safe environment for everyone present – that includes anyone who overdoes it on the booze and anyone who suffers as a consequence. If you’re offering free drinks it’s a good idea to provide some food as well and plentiful non-alcoholic options. Not drinking should be as easy as drinking. There are many reasons why people choose not to drink alcohol: health reasons, religion, pregnancy, driving, or personal preference. Not everyone wants to shout from the rooftops about laying off alcohol, but in a culture that often revolves around buying rounds at the bar, opting out often prompts unwarranted and unwelcome interrogation. Ensure your social events don’t solely revolve around alcohol so that those not drinking can participate just as fully.

Campaigns such as Dry January and similarly ‘Go Sober For October’ (in which participants abstain from alcohol to raise funds for MacMillan Cancer) present great opportunities to promote the wellbeing benefits of a break from alcohol. There is nothing to stop employers actively supporting and promoting such initiatives in the workplace, by, for example, fund matching on sponsorship money raised by individuals, or creating social events during these months, which specifically focus on healthy and/or non-alcohol related activities.

What not to do, as an employer, is to start disciplinary action with someone who has an addiction problem. In all likelihood, this will only make the situation worse. There’s a difference between someone who’s had the odd big night out and looks a bit worse for wear, and an addict. The latter is likely to be functioning on a much higher level and is able to hide their drinking habit. Their performance at work may not really be affected, at least initially, by their addiction. Is it really a work issue then, you may ask? Well yes because ultimately their health and subsequently their performance will deteriorate. You don’t need to become a super sleuth, looking for empty bottles under the desk. Instead, what is necessary is to create an environment of trust where people can come and discuss issues they may have. Provide easy access to external helplines and expert advice so that people can make the first move towards helping themselves without having to over share.

Alcohol is a drug. It’s unpredictable. How it affects one person may be very different to the impact it has on someone else. Educate your workforce. Trust them to be the responsible adults you hired, and give them the support they need to tackle their problems. Treat alcoholism as an illness rather than a choice, and you will go a long way towards creating the kind of empathy that is fundamental when managing and engaging with a workforce.

If you would like to learn more about developing a more inclusive approach to managing your workforce, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.