Drinking at Work? Who does it and why?

There is no doubt that attitudes and working cultures are changing in the UK especially when it comes to alcohol consumption in the workplace. Historically this has been a major problem for the UK employment sector although thankfully it is now being addressed. A report for the House of Commons library in 2017 estimated lost productivity due to alcohol consumption totalled £7.3 billion in the tax year 2009/10. The impact on an individual’s health and customer/colleague relationships is also something more businesses need to address.

Drinking Culture in the Workplace

There are still many industries in the UK where a lunchtime drink is still part of the working culture even if not to the same extent of years gone by. Various reasons have been identified as indicators of problem drinking including:

  • Concerns about job security
  • Extreme pressure in the workplace
  • Long hours and shift work
  • Constant risk of physical injury
  • High physical demands
  • Poor supervision/training
  • Tight deadlines which are often unachievable

A report for Norwich Union Healthcare (now Aviva) back in 2007 highlighted a number of issues with:

  • One in 10 employees admitting to hangovers at work once a month
  • One in 20 employees admitting to hangovers at work once a week
  • 15% of those questioned admitted to being drunk at work
  • 33% of employees questioned admitted they had attended work with a hangover

Additional surveys have also highlighted how individuals deal with work stress:

  • 33% will comfort eat
  • 30% will speak to a friend or colleague
  • 30% will find solace in alcohol

One of the main problems with drinking in the workplace is the fact that it is often overlooked, seen as part of the social culture and part of the working environment. While often believed to be more prevalent in manual employment roles, drinking at work is an issue right across the board, all the way up to high powered management.

The Impact of Alcohol in the Workplace

It is not difficult to think of a variety of ways in which alcohol consumption can impact the way you work. Some of the major problems include:

Concentration

Alcohol consumption will impact your concentration almost immediately with 2 pints of ordinary strength beer, or 4 small glasses of wine, at lunchtime still in your bloodstream three hours later. Those who have partaken in excessive drinking in the evening prior to work the next morning will be well aware of the thumping headaches, cold sweats and in extreme cases a degree of paranoia it can cause. If you are not able to concentrate on your work then by definition your productivity will fall.

Relationship with Customers

Those employees who are still hungover from the previous evening or may have consumed alcohol at lunchtime do not give the best impression when speaking with customers. Aside from the obvious smell of alcohol on their breath they may slur their words, reaction times may be extended and their ability to assist customers can be severely compromised. Whether on the phone, or in a meeting, this does not give the best impression of the company.

Relationship with Colleagues

For any business to operate efficiently all work colleagues need to pull together, work together and enjoy the rewards. Resentment can very quickly build if a colleague is drunk in the workplace and unable to fulfil their duties to an acceptable standard. In this situation, colleagues forced to “pick up the slack” may feel as though they are being put upon. This can lead to anger, conflict and sometimes violence in the workplace.

Safety issues

Aside from the fact it is illegal to operate an array of machinery when under the influence of alcohol there are also safety issues for work colleagues. All employers have a legal obligation to ensure the well-being and safety of all employees. As such, if they recognise that an individual is under the influence of alcohol then they have a legal obligation to remove them from the situation for the well-being of all parties.

Drunk employee

If an employer chooses to ignore an employee under the influence of alcohol and they injure or kill somebody in an accident at work the employer could face a hefty fine and possible prison sentence for breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act .

Addressing Alcohol in the Workplace

In many cases excessive alcohol consumption can be an indicator of both general health and mental health issues. As a consequence, while historically many employers would simply have terminated the contract of employees with an alcohol issue, today it is seen as much as an illness as it is a choice. Various procedures are now in place including:

  • Mandatory testing

Some companies have introduced mandatory testing for blood alcohol levels especially where machinery and vehicles are used. This is something of a grey area because many believe it infringes on the human rights of individual employees even though it can ensure the safety of the wider workforce.

  • Time off work

Where it is obvious that an employee has an issue to address and they are over consuming alcohol on a regular basis, an employer may decide to give them time off work. In many instances this time off work to reflect and address problems in their personal life can lead to a refreshed and more productive employee returning in due course.

  • Expert advice

While large organisations tend to have HR departments able to assist and guide employees seeking advice about alcohol consumption, many companies will seek outside professional advice. This may include medical treatment and/or the opportunity to discuss issues and concerns with a trained psychologist.

Health and Safety at Work

All employers are legally required to ensure the well-being and safety of employees and customers. As a consequence, according to Accident Claims Advice, if there is an accident claim due to an employee being under the influence of alcohol the employer may be held wholly or partially responsible. While employers obviously have one eye on productivity and morale amongst the workforce they also have a legal obligation to ensure a safe and secure working environment.

Changing Attitudes

Whether socialising in the evening or partaking in a “liquid lunch” during working hours, there has been a relatively strong drinking culture across many different business sectors in the UK. Greater knowledge regarding the impact on physical and mental health, productivity and relationships has seen many people seek advice on alcohol addiction. There is also the legal obligation for employers to maintain a safe and secure working environment for employees and customers. Progress has been made in changing the drinking culture of years gone by but more work still needs to be done.

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