Britain’s so-called binge drinking culture often grabs media headlines, and yet in many cases it is the workplace which frames the discussion, with reports of boozy lawyers, financiers and manual labourers all drinking to excess. As 2016 draws to a close, and the inevitable round of office parties and corporate functions gets under way, Vicky Powell looks at exactly what sort of drinking is going on in and around British workplaces and how the actions of employers can help — or hinder — responsible alcohol consumption among staff.

Which workers are drinking?

A recent report from the think tank Demos highlighted the dangerous levels of alcohol abuse in some of Britain’s leading professions — with lawyers, people working in finance and medical professionals often singled out as some of the worst offenders.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that people who are better paid and in senior managerial and professional roles are most likely to drink excessively, although those in routine occupations have the highest rate of alcohol-related mortality.

Anecdotally, the Demos report also says it seems that the graduate schemes attached to some leading professions come with “expectations of fairly aggressive drinking cultures”, including regular networking events involving alcohol.

Overall, employees are more likely to drink excessively than unemployed people and new analysis from Demos has indicated that the proportion of young workers drinking excessively is highest in manual jobs such as in construction and manufacturing, with a massive 48% of miners and 37% of construction workers drinking heavily. The percentage of young workers drinking to excess was also high in professional and financial services where about a third of staff admitted heavy drinking.

In contrast, lower rates of binge drinking were found among young public services workers such as the police, teachers and social workers, with, for example, only around a fifth of social workers reporting drinking five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion in the previous week.

The high cost of alcohol

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in its guidance for employers on alcohol at work entitled Don’t Mix It (INDG240), points out that excessive alcohol intake is a risk factor in coronary heart disease, strokes, liver damage, cirrhosis of the liver, and cancers of the mouth and throat. People who drink very heavily may also develop psychological and emotional problems, including depression.

There is also a huge economic cost to drinking among the workforce. Up to 17 million working days are lost each year because of alcohol-related sickness, at a cost to the economy of £7.3 billion. Indeed, it is estimated that an average organisation with 200 employees loses around £37,634 per year to alcohol-related harm.

The charity Alcohol Concern warns that alcohol misuse is associated with a variety of negative workplace outcomes, including higher levels of absenteeism, reduced turnover and increased frequency of accidents and arguments, which may sometimes even turn violent.

One research study undertaken for Norwich Union Healthcare found that in the UK, almost a third (32%) of employees had attended work with a hangover, with 10% stating this happened at least once a month. Moreover, one in four workers said that their drinking meant that they did the minimum amount of work and went home as soon as possible.

Alcohol Concern says this is consistent with other research concerning “presenteeism” or attending work when unwell, which shows a clear association with poor performance at work, as well as higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of psychological wellbeing.

The role of the employer

It is ironic that, despite the high costs of alcohol-related harm to businesses, employers can themselves foster cultures of drinking among their staff.

Wider research by Demos has found that work-related drinking can be important at many stages of working life — from first initiation with colleagues through to appearing to help with achieving business objectives and career progression in some sectors. Some employers may even use drinking culture explicitly as a draw for job candidates in the first place.

The Demos research indicated that more than two-fifths (43%) of young workers thought that not drinking alcohol was a barrier to fitting in socially at work.

Emerging research even suggests that in some workplaces, not drinking alcohol can be harmful to career advancement — especially in those professions with a heavy networking element for bringing in new business. This is especially problematic because of the risk of marginalising staff of religious and ethnic minority groups or others who do not drink.

Besides the motivations of drinking to socialise and get on professionally, the Demos research also highlighted managing the pressures of modern life as a key factor, with over a quarter (26%) of young workers surveyed reporting drinking during a typical week in order to manage stress.

What can employers do?

Experts point out that there is a great deal which responsible employers can do to protect the health of their employees — and the business — from alcohol-related harm.

Andrew Misell, Director at Alcohol Concern says, “There’s no denying that workplace drinking culture has changed massively in recent decades. Routine lunchtime drinking is a thing of the past, but in some workplaces and some professions there is still a pressure to drink in order to fit in and get on. There’s a lot that employers can do to shift the focus away from alcohol and ensure that drinks with colleagues remain a pleasant social option, not a prerequisite for professional success.”

Specifically, Alcohol Concern highlights four key types of workplace alcohol interventions which employers might consider.

  1. Through health promotion campaigns, employers can encourage workers to improve their physical and psychological wellbeing by undertaking increased physical exercise, adopting healthier diets, and reducing risky behaviours such as smoking and alcohol consumption.

  2. Employers can also make use of identification and brief advice (IBA) interventions. These aim to moderate an individual’s alcohol consumption to sensible levels, using a screening tool to establish levels of drinking and a five-minute advice session with a trained interventionist, such as a general practitioner or social worker, who provides non-judgmental feedback and motivational advice to reduce risky drinking.

  3. Some companies have reported success by means of internet-based interventions for staff, with advantages including cost-effectiveness and the option for employees to access the intervention any time, and in private, to avoid openly disclosing an alcohol problem. One web-based personalised feedback programme delivered to 124 workers aged between 18 and 24 delivered significantly lower levels of drinking, with those classified as high-risk drinkers reporting the greatest decreases. However, web-based interventions may not be suitable for workers with complex alcohol problems or those lacking in computer literacy and reading proficiency.

  4. Finally, some workplace interventions might target the workplace culture and environment head on, openly recognising that workplaces may have certain characteristics that facilitate the development and maintenance of undesirable drinking behaviours.

It is worth noting that many employers consider alcohol dependence to be an illness and attempt to address it with rehabilitation. The HSE advises that, “A court may find a dismissal unfair if an employer has made no attempt to help an employee whose work problems are related to drinking alcohol.”

The workplace alcohol policy

Alcohol Concern emphasises that all the above alcohol interventions are generally considered to be most beneficial when placed in the context of a good workplace alcohol policy that includes when, if ever, drinking at the workplace or during working hours is acceptable, the circumstances in which disciplinary action will be taken, the procedure for recognition and help for those with alcohol-related problems, and alcohol education. Questions to address include whether, where there are employees working in safety-sensitive jobs, the rules are the same for them as other employees. What would be the procedure for dealing with employees who break these rules or turn up for work drunk?

The policy should ensure that problems are identified early, dealt with effectively and encourage those with alcohol problems to seek help, knowing they will have the organisation’s support. However, there will be some situations, such as driving for work, when disciplinary measures will be inevitable.

A good alcohol policy should set out the company’s expectations for ensuring alcohol consumption does not have a detrimental effect on the organisation or its employees, leaving less room for misunderstanding than an informal understanding. It should also include a line stating that any alcohol problem will be treated in strict confidence.

Alcohol is especially prominent in the festive season, with research suggesting that adults in the UK will consume up to 40% more alcohol in the month of December as a result of office parties and other corporate functions. Responsible employers will ensure non-alcoholic drinks are available at these events and consider restricting the amount of free alcohol on offer, promoting a culture of respect for those who choose not to drink alcohol for any reason.

The HSE says, “The prospect of tackling when and how much employees drink can be daunting … But acting to prevent problems before they occur can save time in the end and is often more effective than dealing with a problem that has become too serious to ignore.”

Last reviewed 21 October 2016