High stakes business or work culture and stress-related drinking

You work in a very busy environment. You may own a busy business or hold a very senior role. You are responsible for a complex team or function. Every day is highly pressurised.

It is normal to have some down time after a hectic day of meeting targets and managing multiple highly demanding projects. Perhaps, your down time is to head down to the pub or bar for a drink with your friends. Maybe you enjoy endless cocktails one after another on a school night, helping you to forget work worries for that one night before the morning breaks for a new working day.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a drink or two in moderation, but what do you do when you or a work colleague become dependent on alcohol as a stress release. Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and colleagues found that people who work long hours are about 12% more likely to become heavy drinkers.

In the study on excessive drinking, Marianna and her colleagues took data from 61 different studies to create a dataset of over 330,000 workers across 14 countries. “The results showed that working more than 48 hours a week was associated with increased risky alcohol use”. “We defined risky alcohol use as more than 14 drinks per week for women and more than 21 drinks per week for men.”

In the UK, according to 2022 research from education charity Drinkaware, alcohol is more deeply ingrained in the private sector, with “86% of these employees more likely to say that there’s an expectation to drink at employer events than the public sector (15% versus 8%). They’re also 2.5 times more likely to have alcohol subsidised at work social events than in the public sector (23% vs 9%)”.

Larger Companies Leading the Way on the Role of Alcohol in Professional Settings

Due to the impact of excessive drinking on the workplace, there are signs that some companies are re-thinking the role of alcohol in professional settings.

There is evidence that workplace culture is evolving away from a focus on alcohol. For example, large companies including Salesforce, Uber and Jet made moves to reduce or completely ban alcohol in the workplace. “Things have certainly changed in recent decades, with a gradual shift away from workplace socialising focused on alcohol,” says Andrew Misell, director for Wales at the charity Alcohol Change UK. “It’s part of a broader recognition of health and safety issues as well as appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and harassment in the workplace, that have helped to chip away at that traditional workplace drinking culture.”.

There are more serious implications to consider when employees drink excessively and the impact this has on the UK National Health Service (NHS). In a recent article in the Guardian, it was highlighted that the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) found that 43.4% of all alcohol consumed in the UK is drunk by people exceeding the government’s safe drinking guidelines of 14 units a week and is thus potentially harmful. It is also important to note that the alcohol industry makes £11.2bn from this consumption. What is most alarming that a few years ago, it was reported that while there was a succession of high street closures and a declining ‘casual dining scene’, adult beverage sales were still at a historic high.

So, what is the impact of excess drinking culture in the workplace for different demographics:

  1. Lost productivity due to alcohol use costs the UK economy more than £7 billion annually (40% of employers mention alcohol as a significant cause of low productivity)
  2. An estimated 167,000 working years are lost to alcohol every year
  3. A risk of employees attending work hungover or still under the influence from the night before. Studies indicate that 11% of men and 4% of women say they regularly go to work hungover, which affects their productivity. Furthermore, 18- to 34-year-olds have stated that they had gone to work with a hangover that caused them to be less productive at least 30 times in the past 12 months. This compares with just 5% of 35- to 64-year-olds.
  4. Employees may consume alcohol before work or during the day due to dependency
  5. Employee outputs may be affected by health problems resulting from drinking
  6. Many workplace cultures also encourage drinking, whether through informal socialising or workplace events where drinking is considered the norm and alcohol is often made available for free

Alcohol misuse and Health Inequalities

Health inequalities is mainly defined as systemic differences in health outcomes between socioeconomic groups, categorised by indicators such as household income, educational qualifications, housing tenure and area deprivation. Importantly, health inequalities also exist between groups identified using other social constructs such as race, ethnicity and gender.

There is a substantial evidence base identifying links between alcohol and health inequalities. In 2017, those in the most socioeconomically deprived decile had 2.23 times the rate of alcohol-specific mortality (i.e. deaths wholly due to alcohol use) and 1.53 times the rate of alcohol-related mortality (i.e. deaths partially due to alcohol use) compared to the least deprived decile . There is also an increase in alcohol consumption linked to poor housing, diet and nutrition and unemployment.

How can we support our employees and business leaders with stress related drinking?

The following are a few key practical measures that you can embed for a healthy work culture environment:

  • You can regularly monitor your daily alcohol intake by creating a weekly chart or registering for a drinks monitoring digital app.
  • The Chief Medical Officer’s guidelines for both men and women are not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis and to spread drinking over 3 or more days.
  • To a achieve a healthy relationship with alcohol consumption, you may wish to set drink-free days.
  • Drinking with food can reduce the risk of binge or excess drinking
  • Setting the guidelines for employees and introducing an alcohol-free policy during work time can support a culture based on respect and sensitivity
  • Employers and business leaders may wish to not reward employees with alcohol and replace with spa days or free gym membership
  • Encourage health awareness annual days to normalise work-life balance for a healthy culture
  • Line Manager intervention to prevent alcohol related issue escalating is very important. Your first decision should not be disciplining the employee, but to demonstrate an empathetic approach to the problem.
  • Use HR specialists to support you and provide you with the legal guidance to properly manage an employee who may be displaying issues with excess alcohol intake.

About the author

Sophie Azam

National Spokesperson for the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassadors, Institute of Directors

Sophie Azam is the elected IoD National Spokesperson for the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassadors across the United Kingdom. She was elected due to her passion and extensive experience in ED&I across the education and professional body sectors. Sophie has also founded her own educational establishment – IgniteQuals Limited, which was a case study for the Shinkwin Commission report for setting the ED&I Strategy as part of the Governance Arrangements, and at early inception.

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