The Risk Hangover: The Invisible Dilemma of Workplace Alcohol Abuse in Europe

Few retail safety programs acknowledge the danger of alcohol abuse at work.

workplace alcohol abuse

There are few workers who think “one for the road” is a good idea these days, as targeted drinking-and-driving campaigns and stringent police enforcement have rendered the practice a taboo. Most people would not even think about getting behind the wheel after having consumed two or more alcoholic beverages, but paradoxically, the same attitudes do not stretch to the workplace, even though the influence of alcohol may impact performance and productivity. Workplace alcohol abuse could put staff in danger and even risk brand reputation if fatalities are suffered as a result.

It is the paradox of the modern world that the use and misuse of alcohol in the workplace is visible by its very invisibility. Drinking culture forms such a major part of the fabric of most societies that its abuse is often hidden in full view, seldom acknowledged, and even when it is suspected, not confronted.

In fact in some industries, a drinking culture is widely accepted as simply part of how business is done or given and received as a reward for positive results. In short, alcohol mixed with certain industries is a heady cocktail. Unlike drugs, alcohol is not universally condemned as a corporate taboo. Occupations involving repetitive work, irregular hours, or high-stress environments are the most likely places for a drinking cult.

Workplace Alcohol Abuse by the Numbers

From the boardroom to the shop floor, alcohol continues to be a prop for some individuals who, according to experts, are in denial as to its impact on their performance, despite the fact that it is widely recognized as a depressant.

Strong mints, chewing gum, or aftershave cannot mask their unkempt appearance and slurred speech, yet they seldom get reported, even though alcohol abuse represents a major issue for a significant number of the working population.

Between 5 and 20 percent of workers across Europe are regularly involved in drinking beyond the limits of social and health acceptability, and it is especially prevalent in some sectors and occupations. However, the fact that the variance in figures is so wide indicates why few scientists and medical professionals have been able to thoroughly research its true impact.

Different countries have different cultural attitudes to alcohol, which is reflected in their myriad approaches and laws to control the use and misuse of alcohol as it impacts different sectors—from construction to shop and bar workers to forklift truck operatives and drivers, all of whom feature in the most at-risk industries.

In the UK in January 2016, the chief medical officer reevaluated the government’s position on the harmful impact of alcohol for the first time in twenty years and drew the conclusion that there is no “safe” level of consumption when it comes to our health. However, because of the strong relationship the British enjoy with alcohol, the government immediately came under fire as a “nanny state,” trying to remove people’s enjoyment.
Aquarius, a UK charity dealing with business education on alcohol in the workplace, said the problem was endemic and was costing the UK economy £7.3 billion (~ $8.9 billion) a year in alcohol-related sickness and loss of productivity.

According to its figures, drug misuse cost the economy a smaller £1.4 billion (~ $1.7 billion), but because of the taboo surrounding illicit substances, employers are taking more proactive steps to address this specific problem, with many retailers employing sniffer dogs in their back-of-store operations and distribution centers to identify offenders.

Conversely, no company has yet gone down the road of random alcohol testing of staff, possibly because of the inherent human resources issues that would ensue–despite the fact that there are almost 9,000 workplace deaths linked to alcohol each year in the UK.

Aquarius, which works with companies to provide workplace strategies to help workers overcome their issues, argues that most businesses have no formal process in place to identify and support staff.

According to Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 76 percent of Europeans had consumed alcohol at work or during breaks. Each session represented an average of two drinks per person and was more prominent among men and older workers, the so-called Baby Boomers. A staggering 10 percent of the sample owned up to having five drinks or more.

According to the organization’s survey, 24 percent of British workers admitted to having at least four drinks per day, a figure only eclipsed by Ireland, where more than a quarter of the workforce made the same admission. Indeed, a study of Irish construction apprentices revealed that 40 percent of those sampled admitted to “feeling drunk” at work. Back in the UK, 32 percent of the employees sampled admitted to turning up to work with a hangover.

This level of drinking, most reasonable people would accept, would put the individual over the driving limit, yet they believe they “can handle it” at their desks, workbenches, or on the factory or shop floor, even though they may be working with dangerous equipment or be responsible for people occupied in risky environments.

More than 11 percent of Austrians drink every day at work, but this figure increases to a massive 75 per cent when special social events take place at work. In Belgium, workers are often served wine and beer by their employers during the working day, and one in seven Danish workers regularly drank beer at work.

In Malta, around a fifth of employers were aware of staff who drank in the workplace, while in the Netherlands, around 4 percent of staff consumed alcohol before they went to work. In the country as a whole, 21 percent of Dutch workers admitted to drinking excessively, which was defined as someone who consumes in excess of 20 alcoholic drinks per week or six per day.

Around 8 percent of Polish workers consumed alcohol at work, but this was higher in the professional sectors and larger corporations. Conversely, in Portugal, around a quarter of construction and public sector workers regularly drank at work.

Put simply, the consumption of alcohol at work can have negative impacts for individuals and organizations in terms of their health. There are more instances of sick leave, short-term absenteeism, reduced performance, colleague or customer conflicts, more workplace safety issues, company or brand image problems, and damage to equipment or products.

Public authorities and social partners in EU countries have developed national legislation and agreements banning or limiting the use of alcohol in the workplace, with a focus on testing practices intended to control usage at work. Public authorities and social partners have also adopted various policy measures to prevent and combat the negative effects of alcohol and drug use at work. However, while alcohol is viewed as an acceptable social lubricant rather than a dangerous, drug-like substance, progress on this challenging issue will remain slow.

Absenteeism vs Presenteeism

One of the key side effects of excessive use of alcohol in the workplace is absenteeism caused by hangovers from boozy weekends. This has a negative impact on work morale in the sense of colleagues having to work harder to cover for absence.

An area not readily studied is the impact on “presenteeism,” or being at work under the influence of alcohol. This can manifest itself in obvious health and safety risks of operating heavy or dangerous machinery (a forklift truck in a warehouse, for example) where there are obvious dangers. But what about presenteeism creating conflict between other members of staff or customers? One ill-timed word combined with the limited mental capacity caused by the effects of alcohol could trigger a colleague or customer confrontation, which in a retail store or restaurant environment could also be brand damaging.

Can of Worms?

Aquarius says that tackling the issue can seem like opening a can of worms for most employers. If they go down the testing route, what type of regime would it be–breath, saliva, or urine? And who would take these samples—a trained occupational health officer, or an external provider? Would it be prompted by targeted suspicion of an individual or random testing? What are the consequences for a positive test result—suspension, dismissal, or police involvement? In terms of whistleblowing, could an employee who tests positive be the victim of malicious claims and therefore open the business up to potential litigation?

The argument is further nuanced by the social stigma associated with alcohol abuse—the shame and embarrassment felt by an individual whose actions may be a cry for help.

The answer to overcoming the barriers, Aquarius argues, is education and training awareness, bringing the issue and the unacceptable behavior into the open. It’s also important to establish closer working among departments (human resources, risk management, and loss prevention, for example), and positive promotion of help and well-being services to staff, so they know there is somewhere to go. Confidentiality and discretion must be used at all times.

Help inside the workplace can also provide an antidote to other issues that may trigger drinking at home. A more empathetic approach can help break a cycle of despair. Positive examples of people who have reached out to alcohol support services prove the case in that individuals have felt benefits including being healthier and improved relationships with their work colleagues. There is also a sense of relief that they are back in control of their drinking and their lives and that they have a better relationship with alcohol. They are more motivated and have greater energy because the symptoms of alcohol abuse, such as sleepless nights, have disappeared.

Workplace Alcohol Abuse: Retail Industry Case Studies

Examples of drink-related incidents are hard to come across because the issues are understandably dealt with discreetly, except in high-profile cases where death or serious injury has resulted.

But it is fair to say that most businesses have strict alcohol and drug policies, wherein the alcohol policy is devised by the health and safety or corporate risk team, but the issue is “owned” by the human resources department in terms of the consequences or penalties.

The head of health and safety for one prominent UK High Street business said, “In the last two years, we have re-emphasized our drug and alcohol (D&A) policy and enhanced it via a communication to the entire business. We have trained senior managers in the DCs on the process for legal D&A testing; however, we currently employ the services of an external company to come in and carry out the testing on our behalf.

“This is routinely done immediately in cases such as if a forklift truck (FLT) driver has been involved in an accident. To date, there have been a few drivers tested, but none have come back with a positive result for D&A. In cases where there is an issue, we seek to assist the individual, but if felt absolutely necessary, we will dismiss them. This is reiterated in our D&A policy.”

Another head of health and safety added, “In a previous life, a nightshift worker managed to overturn his FLT [forklift] while under the influence of alcohol. Due to it happening in the middle of the night, there was no effective management response to it, and by the morning, the root cause of the problem had been effectively covered up by the shift supervisor. It took extensive efforts by the team to identify a culture of drinking prior to a shift start and a poker club during work hours.”

This last example highlights the fact that many cultures embrace alcohol as a social glue and form of cohesion, but this has consequences in the workplace when that glue begins to come unstuck. A structured approach including zero-tolerance to drinking at work supported by workplace education and helplines for all staff can keep a sense of perspective for affected individuals and help protect colleagues, the business, and the brand.

This article was originally published in LP Magazine EU in the Spring 2016 issue and was updated January 18, 2017.

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