Alcohol consumption

More than half of adults who drink alcohol say they do so because it helps them to cope with the pressures of day-to-day life, research has suggested. Employers can’t solve all of life’s ills, but they can create a more open and supportive working environment.

Employee health and wellbeing – offering support to tackle problem drinking

More than half (58%) of adults who drink alcohol say they do so because it helps them to cope with the pressures of day-to-day life, according to a poll by pollster YouGov for the charity Drinkaware.

It also found more than a third (38%) of men and women who said they had drunk alcohol in the last year had done so to forget their problems at least some of the time. A further 47% had done so to cheer themselves up when in a bad mood and 41% said it helped when they felt depressed or nervous.

The survey of more than 6,000 people found these trends to be roughly equal for both men and women and seen across all age ranges to varying degrees. However, people in lower social grades, who are more likely to be experiencing financial and housing worries, were drinking to forget their problems or when they are depressed or nervous at a significantly higher rate.

Links to stress and mental health

Drinkaware Chief Executive Elaine Hindal said “Whilst people might think having a drink after a hard day can help them relax, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with. This is because regular, heavy drinking interferes with the neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health.

“The number of people who are drinking when they are already feeling depressed or nervous, and at levels which are harmful to both their physical and mental health is also deeply concerning,” she added.

What, then, should employers be taking away from this?

First, for people working in safety-critical roles, alcohol consumption is a completely different issue for those in non-safety-critical, roles. Even if some of the triggers for drinking may be the same, how alcohol consumption is managed, monitored, tested, screened for and communicated has to be much more regulated and tightly enforced, for obvious reasons.

But for the rest of us this research highlights a number of important areas. Much as with safety-critical roles, there may be issues of performance and safety. Is that person’s drinking having a day-to-day effect on their performance; is it even potentially putting them or colleagues in danger?

Impact of working conditions

There is also a wider “cause and effect” argument here. By creating working conditions where people feel under pressure, perhaps long hours, demanding workload, unsupportive management or low pay/precarious working, are employers partly to blame?

To what extent, too, are too many workplace still lubricated by alcohol, whether for client meetings or team bonding activities? And how excluding is this to those who can’t or don’t want to drink?

Then, of course, there are the wider health questions posed by such drinking. The links between alcohol consumption and certain cancers, with liver disease, with weight gain and obesity and so on.

But it also needs to be emphasised that employers are neither the cause of all society’s ills, nor can they expected to provide all the solutions.

In truth, if alcohol was invented as a drug today, it would probably be immediately banned or at least tightly proscribed. Its effects – good and bad – have been part of the human experience for centuries.

Training, OH and EAPs

What, then, in practical terms can employers do to help? Better general management training for managers, including around knowing the signs of “problem” drinking and what to do about it can be a good start.

Better training around delegation, communication and time management may also help teams to feel more in control of workload and demands.

Working to uncouple any culture of drinking within the organisation can be helpful, too. This does not mean the office has to be completely “dry”, it’s just about not making alcohol the default solution of choice. It also about making the workplace more visibly supportive. And part of this can be through offering access to confidential support, such as you get through an EAP.

Obviously, an EAP is not going to be able to replace specialist alcohol support solutions, or even just access to an occupational health practitioner. But it can be a useful way of putting in place a tool people can turn to in a “safe” and confidential way.

An EAP can also, of course, be a useful tool for managers in terms of what is the best practice approach to what can often seem like a difficult situation.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health says “An EAP is not going to be a magic potion. The UK’s consumption of alcohol is a society-wide issue with many complex triggers and drivers.

“But offering access to an EAP can help an employer show that it genuinely does care and is committed to employee health and wellbeing, including excessive alcohol consumption,” she adds.