Employers would be wise to be clear on drinking cultures

The gap between the amount of alcohol consumed by men and women has all but now closed, research has suggested. But with evidently continuing impacts upon performance, health and safety at work, an ongoing challenge for many employers is the conflicting messages many organisations often send out around drinking in (and after) work.

This week is the Alcohol Concern-led Alcohol Awareness Week (#AAW16) and employers nationwide are being encouraged to help raise awareness around recommended drinking limits and (this year in particular) the broad health risks associated with alcohol. But for employers, this isn’t just about social responsibility. It also comes down to reducing a number of risks at work too.

AAW16 follows hard on the heels of Cancer Research UK’s “Dryathlon” campaign in September and as ever heralds another Dry January next year.

All this activity and awareness-raising is, undoubtedly, valuable and worthwhile, not least because, as recent research on the website BMJ Open has highlighted, the traditional consumption gap between men and women when it comes to drinking alcohol has all but disappeared.

But, as Alcohol Concern has argued, some 17 million working days are lost because of excessive drinking each year, and approximately 200,000 workers come into work with a hangover every day. Not figures any employer can afford to overlook.

As a nation, we do appear to be somewhat attached to our drinking culture. For example, while most of us would probably readily concede that drinking too much alcohol is bad for our health, there appears to be widespread scepticism about the official guidelines when it comes to safe drinking. Equally no clear cut impression of a boundary when it comes to work and drinking behaviour.

This week’s awareness week ‘know the risks’ seeks to emphasise in no uncertain terms the firm links between ill health and alcohol, and the health risks associated with drinking which can impact and worsen depression, dementia, diabetes, brain damage, hypertension.

Dispelling the myths is clearly needed. A recent poll of more than 2,000 people for the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) found that nearly two thirds (61%) agreed moderate alcohol consumption should be part of a healthy lifestyle.

Yet more than half (51%) disagreed with recommendations made by the UK chief medical officers earlier this year that alcohol consumption guidelines should be the same for men and women.

As CAMRA chairman Colin Valentine put it:

“If the government wants people to take the guidance seriously then it needs to present people with realistic and believable advice, which they can use to judge their own risk when it comes to responsible drinking. If the public feels, as our figures suggest, that the guidelines are not credible and lack evidence, the danger is they will increasingly just ignore them.”

So, there are important lessons here for employers looking to ramp up their alcohol-based health promotion activity.

First, if health messages, however well-intentioned, appear to be unrealistic or unachievable, then there is a greater chance more people will either ignore or just not stick to them. Second, employers need to look at their overall stance when it comes to drinking and the workplace, and not just the health promotion one.

It seems evident that a mix of nanny management needs to be combined with myth-busting if this health risk is to be tackled.

Screening and testing should play an important role in terms of management here, as well as wider health promotion and education. Frontline expert and BHWA founder Alastair Campbell from SureScreen Diagnostics explains how this all fits together

"In recent years as much as 30% of workplace accidents have been associated with alcohol in safety-critical industries alone, and we know from experience that there is a wider issue across all workplaces and that many more employers need to recognise this risk. The Uk actually has the second highest instance of staff turning into work hungover, according to the good work commissioned by the Global Drug Survey.

Concentration, co-ordination and being of a sound mind when working is essential to performance, safety and quality in any role. So it is important, albeit challenging, to try to raise awareness amongst your workforce of the real health risks and day-to-day under-performance that drugs and alcohol can cause.

Holding quick informative sessions on-site using some interesting statistics on drug and alcohol abuse can be engaging and memorable whilst avoiding the formality of a lengthy presentation. Investing in flyers and posters to put up around sites will re-enforce your message. However, the most efficient method of reducing workplace risks is implementing a drug and alcohol policy, and enforcing it by random and for-cause screening to deter impairment from entering the workplace in the first place."

Outside the relatively clear-cut parameters of safety-critical work, it is indeed arguable many UK workplaces do still have something of a drinking culture. In many organisations, alcohol is what lubricates relationship management with clients, as well as team and individual networking.

Research from employment solicitors Crossland argued in March, for example, that more than a third (35%) of employees knew or suspected their colleagues had a drug problem or had taken illegal substances either during or outside work.

What this can lead to is, in effect, a “normalising” of excessive or regular daytime alcohol consumption, a normalising that can then jar or conflict with messages around responsible consumption and healthier behaviours.

Thus when approaching this issue – and especially as we also approach the Christmas office party season – it is important for organisations to consider the wider cultural and organisational attitudes and messages that are being communicated to your employees, and whether these are the impression you want to be giving.

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