Alcohol sales during lockdown have increased by a third and our assumption has to be that a lot of it is being consumed by employees with more time on their hands than usual, as the nation goes to bed and gets up later than ‘normal work’ would allow.
But, as John Gillen a leading expert in alcohol abuse therapies points out, alcohol abuse has long-term physical and mental health problems causing a very real impact the workplace and, in some cases, work pressures and workplace cultures can cause or exacerbate problems.
With this in mind, it is imperative says Gillen, that employers understand alcohol abuse in the workplace, how to recognise it, the impact it can have and how to deal with it.
The rise of alcohol abuse in the workplace
According to Gillen and others, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism has increased. Drinking patterns have become out of control and heavy drinking episodes are experienced outside and inside the workplace.
At myHRdept we’ve heard of employees consuming alcohol before work, after work and even in work, but it’s important to recognise that alcohol abuse isn’t selected by an individual. It will commonly start down to an underlying trigger, of stress, unhappiness or pressure. Alcohol will then be used to work through those emotions, and the individual will see it as a motivator or a security blanket. Work can sometimes be a contributory factor, whether it be work pressure, negative working relationships or underappreciation. There are many emotions or situations which can promote and fuel alcohol problems.
The impact of alcohol abuse on the workplace
Alcohol abuse can impact the workplace, reducing profitability and increasing employer liability:
- Accidents: From higher risk of accidents and injuries to mistakes, there’s concern for most occupations. However, safety will be a greater worry in physical, highly active jobs.
- Work performance: Alcohol impacts the quality of work, turn-around periods, professionalism, productivity and can result in poor decisions.
- Workplace relationships: Alcohol abuse can change behaviours, outlooks and attitudes and can severely impact workplace relationships. Colleagues may distance themselves, promoting loneliness, known to further fuel alcohol abuse. This can become a vicious circle, resulting in a negative workplace culture.
- Liability and losses: From a loss of skills and ability, to a reduced workforce, alcohol abuse can shift the dynamic of a workplace, requiring proactive change.
- Reputational risks: e.g. arising from employees involved in road accidents while driving company vehicles under the influence of alcohol.
For employers it makes sense financially and otherwise to ensure that the workplace culture doesn’t result in alcoholism, and to take steps to support employees who may be abusing alcohol.
The importance of a supportive workplace culture
Gillen believes that to prevent work being a reason for alcohol abuse it’s important that owners and managers try to promote their workplace to be a supportive, open and positive environment. Steps should be taken to adopt positive management techniques and encourage others to do the same, promoting equality and fairness and eradicating any signs of a bullying culture through training, awareness, coaching and ultimately by enforcement. Steps should also be taken to reduce excessive working hours and ensure good job design and training and to improve the physical working environment (with a particular emphasis on employee distancing at the moment.)
By doing these things alcoholism because of work should be reduced, although alcohol abuse may still enter the workplace for other external reasons. For this reason employers may also consider implementing an employee assistance programme, to support those suffering with alcohol abuse or other issues. These are widely available through a variety of employee benefit programmes and can be extremely cost effective, whilst actively showing employees that their employer cares and is prepared to invest in their health and wellbeing.
Through a positive workplace culture, says Gillen, employees may feel comfortable to share their struggles of alcoholism with their employer, requesting support rather than trying to hide the problem.
How else can employers support workers with alcohol problems?
Employers should have (and actively promote) policies to cover alcohol in the workplace and policies that promote good behaviour and open communication e.g. Dignity at Work, Equal Opportunities.
Policies aside it is wise to have a plan in place if alcohol abuse does enter the workplace. With this in mind, Gillen recommends a proactive approach, while also prioritising the privacy and mental health of employees.
He suggests that employers start by discussing their concerns of alcohol abuse with their employee. Here, says Gillen, it is important to share your support and guidance and to use open dialogue to find out whether the workplace culture has contributed to the problem in their lives, resulting in alcohol abuse. The biggest piece of advice he says is to follow a compassionate workplace response, while doing your utmost as an employer to promote recovery.
Our thanks to John Gillen of the Rehab Clinics Group for providing the inspiration for this article. John Gillen is a Visiting Professor at Belgrade University, was the inspiration behind the bestselling book ‘The Secret Disease of Addiction’ and is a director of the Ocean Recovery Centre. His organisation provide alcohol rehab programmes and a wealth of advice and expertise on the topic of addiction.
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