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Drinking in the workplace – how to avoid a HR hangover

Having a few drinks every now and again with colleagues is an ordinary part of working life for many. But those who have ever suffered from a Friday morning hangover can attest that sometimes, drinking with colleagues can lead to a lack of good judgement.

Having a few drinks every now and again with colleagues is an ordinary part of working life for many. But those who have ever suffered from a Friday morning hangover can attest that sometimes, drinking with colleagues can lead to a lack of good judgement. In some cases, this goes as far as resulting in bad behaviour, in which case the hangover can reach as far as the HR department.

Our research shows this problem is more common than businesses might think. A third of UK employees say there is a drinking culture in their workplace, while more than a quarter say they have regretted their actions after drinking at work. This is particularly true of younger age groups, with more than half of those aged 25-34 regretting their conduct after drinking with colleagues1.

Regular and excessive alcohol consumption can not only lead to an awkward day in the office, but is also associated with a number of health problems. For example, heavy drinking is linked to a greater risk of liver disease, heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, stroke and several types of cancer2. Alcohol is the third largest risk factor for disability and disease, and recent ONS figures show the number of annual alcohol-related deaths has risen for the third consecutive year to almost 9,0003.

Despite this, it can be tempting for employers to avoid setting policies about drinking at work. Most will simply trust their staff to use their better judgement, and in the majority of cases this works. However, an unclear alcohol policy can lead to a whole host of problems for an organisation, and not only in terms of health and wellbeing. Other issues include loss of productivity and poor performance, bad behaviour or discipline, negative employee relations and an adverse effect on company image.

It’s therefore vital from both a wellbeing and productivity perspective that organisations have clear guidelines in place about drinking alcohol.

The prospect of implementing an alcohol policy can be daunting, particularly for SME organisations who may not have an in-house specialist to provide advice. The Health and Safety Executive4  suggest businesses follow a number of steps, beginning with a review of HR records to identify any possible problem areas and finishing with a formal written alcohol policy, plus additional training and information for staff where needed:

– Find out if you have a problem e.g. through sickness absence, disciplinary, productivity and accident records.
– Make a list of who you need to consult.
– Decide how your company expects employees to limit their drinking.
– Consider how you can make sure that if an employee has a possible alcohol problem, this is noticed and help is offered.
– Decide at what point and in what circumstances you will treat an employee’s drinking as a matter for discipline rather than a health problem.
– Think about how you will let your workforce know about company policy on alcohol – consider introducing a formal written alcohol policy.
– Find out if any of your managers or other staff need more information or training.
– Consider providing staff with general information about alcohol and health.

Of course, some employees may struggle with their drinking despite having a policy to follow. This is when third party support can prove invaluable, particularly in SME organisations with a limited Occupational Health or HR function. Alcoholism should always be treated initially as a health concern, rather than a disciplinary issue, and appropriate support given. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) are included alongside most group income protection policies, and provide free access to professional counselling services. Counsellors will refer employees to appropriate treatment options where necessary. They will also monitor an employee’s progress and implement a follow-up programme to ensure continued sobriety.  An EAP can therefore be a real gift for organisations wanting to help a member of staff but finding they lack the expertise or are too close to the situation to do so effectively.

Such services can also be used to communicate general health and wellbeing information, including advice about alcohol. Communicating a positive message about drinking is a good way of preventing a negative drinking culture from being cultivated and could help to avoid difficulties later down the line. 

1 Canada Life Group Insurance research, March 2017
2 Rethinking Drinking – see here
3 Institute of Alcohol Studies – see here
4 Don’t mix it: A guide for employers on alcohol at work – see here

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