Despite employers playing an undisputed role in staff wellbeing, attitudes to alcohol and problem drinking in the workplace vary greatly. In our post-pandemic world, and with the cost-of-living crisis looming large over many people’s lives, it has never been more important for employers to address the support that they offer. In this blog, Susan Laurie provides some useful tips.
Alcohol has a complex role in the workplace. While some organisations continue to treat alcohol use as a disciplinary issue (rather than a health, safety, and wellbeing concern), other employers actively encourage a harmful drinking culture, with a recent survey finding one in five employees felt pressured to consume alcohol at work events.
Drinking is heavily marketed as a tool to ‘unwind’ and ‘relax,’ and in times of stress and worry, many people use alcohol to self-medicate and cope. A good, enlightened employer will want to help employees who may be feeling anxious and vulnerable and prevent things from getting worse, especially since alcohol may also be used to help cope with work-related stress. As someone who struggled with alcohol whilst trying to hold down a job, I know how it feels to be afraid to ask for help. I was reluctant to admit my increasing reliance on alcohol, through fear of judgement, possible repercussions and perhaps even losing my job. Having an empathetic boss can mean the difference between someone receiving the correct support, or silently progressing to dependence. They can even help prevent alcohol from ruining a person’s life.
Why should employers act?
With deaths from alcohol highest amongst people of working age, and alcohol harm costing the UK economy billions every year, this is an obvious area of concern for employers. Alcohol use can result in several signifiers in the workplace, such as poor timekeeping, low quality of work, accidents, and absence.
As an employer, you are in a strong position to engage with your staff about alcohol awareness and offer proactive education and training to workers to support those with a problem and prevent the development of problematic habits.
For some people, the pandemic has not only exacerbated any issues with alcohol they may have had, but also made it easier to drink more. Working from home with later nights, later mornings, and no need to drive to work, have all facilitated more home drinking. The closure of pubs and restaurants during lockdown compelled people who may have never thought of drinking at home before to do just that. What started as temporary solution has, for some, become a permanent habit.
It’s always important to keep in mind that an employee who may be drinking too much could be having a tough time and need support to get back to how they were before: prevention and support are always better than reaction.
How can employers help?
It is important to have a proper alcohol policy in place with a strong focus on wellbeing to create an environment where people feel confident and unafraid to seek help, ensuring confidentiality and allowing time off work to attend therapy etc. However, this will only be effective if line managers understand it fully and are properly trained and educated.
Line managers need to know how to spot the signs that someone may be struggling, and how to speak to a person about this in an empathetic, reassuring, and confidential way.
In the world of remote working, they should have regular catch ups with their staff, asking open-ended questions to genuinely enquire about an individual’s well-being. Keeping the lines of communication open and encouraging employees to ask for support if they are struggling is essential, as is being aware of information, resources, and confidently signposting people to the help they need.
All staff should be educated about alcohol, from safe limits, to how long it takes the body to eliminate alcohol, and the link between alcohol and mental health. This will help them to be more mindful about their own drinking and will also normalise conversations about drinking.
Culture is key
I know from my own experience that workplace culture is crucial in giving someone the confidence to ask for support if they are drinking too much, and this needs to come from the top down. Practically, simple changes such as rewards not being alcohol based, and providing alternatives to alcohol at work socials, are easy to implement.
Ensuring people feel safe and believe they can seek help without fear of judgement, recriminations, or repercussions, requires a shift in attitudes. Employers need to educate everyone in an organisation and make resources available to facilitate a culture where not drinking at work events is normal and things like sober shaming are called out.
By nurturing a supportive culture based on respect and sensitivity, and having a clear alcohol policy in place that sets out expectations about behaviour and prioritises genuine support for wellbeing, employers can create a safe environment where people feel able to ask for help. Through considering these simple things, you could really help someone – perhaps even prevent them from progressing to dependence – because people will reach out before a concern becomes a real issue.
You really can make all the difference.
Written by Susan Laurie
Susan Laurie is a published author and details her experiences of addiction and recovery in her book From rock bottom to sober forever.
Check out Alcohol Change UK’s website for a range of workplace consultancy and training services.
If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, there is help available to you. Speak with your GP about what support might be available to you or someone you are concerned about. This is a great first step in finding help.
Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. Calls are free and confidential. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9.00am to 8.00pm, weekends 11.00am to 4.00pm).
More information about organisations which offer help and support can be found on our support page.
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.