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Managing the relationship between employees and alcohol at work and outside of it

Whether showing appreciation to staff, or celebrating company milestones and achievements, few employers would think twice about encouraging employees to have a tipple at a work event. But when excessive drinking comes to be expected, it can leave some members of the team feeling left out – or even discriminated against.
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Drinking is weaved into UK culture, whenever there’s a celebration the corks pop and alcohol often flows freely.

Whether showing appreciation to staff, or celebrating company milestones and achievements,  few employers would think twice about encouraging employees to have a tipple at a work event. But when excessive drinking comes to be expected, it can leave some members of the team feeling left out – or even discriminated against.

Alcohol Awareness Week is the perfect opportunity to look at the relationship between alcohol and work.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice & Consultancy Director, says:

“The workplace should be a place of inclusivity where employees from all backgrounds feel welcome and supported. And as a work social event is an extension of the workplace, and therefore normal policies do still apply, there is a duty to ensure that no one is placed at a detriment. An employee who doesn’t drink, whether that’s because of health, religious, or personal reasons, shouldn’t feel that they’re missing out on important opportunities to socialise.

“If an employee feels as though they’ve been passed over for promotion due to not participating in a drinking culture, this could lead to a discrimination claim if they possess one of the protected characteristics, whether the intention was there or not.

“Additionally, alcohol can often lead to inappropriate behaviour or harassment at work events, with almost one in three managers reporting to have witnessed this first-hand.

“Recently the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) recommended that employers reduce the amount of alcohol available at work events and refrain from centring social events around alcohol consumption. Almost half of employees (42%) agree with this sentiment, with backing from younger workers, aged between 16 and 34.

“Alternative methods of celebrating and socialising, such as activity days or going out for a meal, will help everyone to feel included and appreciated, and drastically cut the risk of inappropriate behaviours happening.

“60% of employers report having experienced issues relating to their employee’s alcohol habits, therefore offering alcohol at work events could be seen to accelerate the issue at hand.”

Gavin Scarr Hall, Director of Health & Safety at Peninsula, says:

“As well as looking at the alcohol culture around out-of-hours events, it’s also important for employers to consider how they manage employees who turn up to work under the influence.

“Lost productivity owing to alcohol costs the UK economy more than £7 billion annually, and an estimated 167,000 working years are lost due to alcohol misuse every year. Not to mention, there can be significant health & safety risks when employees turn up to work under the influence.

“If anyone is struggling with drug, alcohol or substance abuse, employers should first seek to support them, rather than jumping straight to the disciplinary process.

“It is vital that employers do what they reasonably can to look after their workers’ health, safety, and wellbeing and, where possible, implement support measures. This might include an EAP provision, offering external advice and support or managing workloads to reduce stress.

“However, employers will need to clarify at what point they would need to move from offering support to taking a taking a disciplinary approach. After all, the health & safety of colleagues and clients is also of the utmost importance. Especially if the employee’s role includes driving, operating heavy machinery, or other high-risk operations such as working at height or in confined spaces. Drinking even a small quantity will impair judgement and increase the risk of injury.

“All employers should have a policy on drugs, alcohol, and other substances. This should also include the company’s rules around prescription and over-the-counter medications that impact on performance. The policy should set out clear expectations of behavior, the rules around alcohol use at work and at social events. As Kate has outlined, the rules don’t just stop at the end of the working day or when employees leave the premises.”

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