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Bottling Out

Human beings deal with problems and challenges in different ways. For some, plain sailing is too dull for words and it takes a bit of adversity to add sparkle and interest to life. Others just flop as soon as Lady Fortune says “boo!” and start to struggle. Since the recession began more people have turned to alcohol to blot out their problems.

Alcohol dependency is on the rise and there’s been an increase of 75% in alcohol-related treatment in the last ten years. Former Lib Dem Leader Charles Kennedy quit after disclosing that he was an alcoholic. It seems he’s not the only parliamentarian with a fondness for a drink. A report by the charity Alcohol Concern has found that 26% of MPs believe that there is an unhealthy drinking culture in Parliament. An astonishing £1.33 million was spent at the nine bars in the House of Commons in the year leading up to March 2011; it can’t all have been guzzled by depressed constituents. The MPs must take some responsibility.

While many employers are firm about having or drinking alcohol in the workplace (unless it’s a special occasion when drinks are approved),it’s more difficult to enforce an alcohol ban at lunchtime if the employee is off your premises. There are some exceptions to this, for example, where there is a drug and alcohol testing policy in place.

The occasional drink with lunch is not the end of the world. The problem with alcohol is that over time it tends to lead to another, then another... and the habit forms. But two pints of beer or two glasses of wine takes more than three hours to pass through the bloodstream. Given that your workers will be going back to their jobs within an hour (at the most) this level of lunchtime tippling - which many people would consider to be fairly moderate - can have a significant impact on productivity and performance. Many people underestimate the effect that drinking can have on health and if they start to get into a routine and become psychologically and physically dependant on alcohol things start to go downhill.

Alcohol and drug misuse is a common problem within businesses. 60% of employers report experiencing problems with staff drinking. The problem not only affects the individual, but the workplace too. Productivity will suffer and colleagues can also be adversely affected. In extreme cases, substance misuse can also cause serious harm from accidents and injuries.

How can you tell when acceptable drinking is beginning to tip the balance? Signs which may indicate that somebody is having problems with alcohol include the following.

  • Unexplained or unauthorised absences from work;
  • Patterns of absences, such as the day after payday or frequent absences on a Monday and Friday;
  • Careless or sloppy work;
  • Strained relationships with co-workers;
  • A change in mood and behaviour;
  • Belligerent, argumentative and short tempered;
  • Bloodshot eyes;
  • A smell of alcohol;
  • Shabby appearance;
  • Withdrawn and preoccupied

If you have a suspicion that someone is drinking regularly, don’t make assumptions. Explore your concerns sensitively. As an employer, you have a duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of your employees. If you knowingly allow an employee who is under the influence of alcohol to continue working, and these places the employee or others at risk, you could be prosecuted. We recently had a conversation with a client’s employee who has admitted he has drink problems. While we are doing our best to support his recovery, we have also had to ban him from driving on company business (he is a field based worker) and require him to make other arrangements, which we have helped with.

Common management interventions to help employees with alcohol or drug problems include; providing specialist counselling services, the use of disciplinary procedures and a referral to occupational health practitioners. Disciplinary action should be taken as a last resort as it is very likely that a dismissal will be found to be unfair if no attempt has been made to help the affected employee beforehand. Where an employee holds their hands up and admits that they have a problem, organising some form of counselling or support is the best route to go down.

Whatever the severity of the problem, a clear, coherent (no pun intended) and robust alcohol and drug policy can outline your standards and expectations and can give you a basis from which to follow. If you’d like help introducing a policy in your organisation, or would like some advice on alcoholism within your company, don’t hesitate to give us a call.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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