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Calling time on binge drinkers

Unum Provident chief medical officer Professor Michael O’Donnell says that with binge drinking on the rise and the looming festive season leading to high alcohol consumption, firms should have a written policy which sends a clear message to their staff. He adds that with employers bearing the cost of absenteeism through alcohol abuse, early detection of the problem and treatment could mean gains in productivity.

Binge drinking and excessive alcohol intake in general has had no shortage of media attention recently. Medical experts are concerned about the long-term health consequences of alcohol consumption but what is the situation with regard to health problems from the rise in excessive drinking and what should employers do to curb alcohol consump- tion at events such as Christmas parties?

One of the key clouds on the healthcare horizon is binge drinking and excessive alcohol consumption. We are all appalled by the scenes on TV of gangs of drunken young people fighting and vomiting in city centres when nightclubs throw them out. Apart from the problems that this behaviour creates for accident and emergency departments, there are longer-term health issues.

We know that alcohol consumption and the incidence of alcoholism can be related in a direct way to the price and availability of alcohol. The Government’s relaxation of drinking laws to prevent the rush to drink up before last orders appears, at least to some of us, to be making the problem worse. The proliferation of drinking outlets and the competition between them has led to price-cutting and happy hours. Between 1980 and 2000, there has been a massive 121 per cent increase in deaths from cirrhosis of the liver.

It is surely significant that so far these problems are being discussed only in terms of mortality and cost to the NHS. The rise in alcoholism, as well as other contemporary health issues such as obesity, and their related consequences will become an increasing burden on society and will cause problems for employers and medical insurers.

With binge drinking, there are difficulties faced by employers coping with absenteeism due to hangovers.

Statistics published by the Government’s strategy unit suggests that drinking costs employers 6.4bn a year through absence, accidents and violence. Up to 17 million working days a year are lost through alcohol-related sickness absence and up to 20 million days a year are lost through lower activity rates and increased mistakes due to alcohol consumption. It is also estimated that up to 20 per cent of workplace deaths are related to alcohol.

According to other studies, one in 12 employees has some kind of drinking problem. The most recent British Household Survey showed that 26 per cent of working men had consumed more than eight alcohol units on at least one day and that 14 per cent of working women had consumed more than six units in one day. Such excessive consumption levels may obviously have a negative effect on work safety and performance and lunchtime drinking or drinking before shifts can cause inefficiency, accidents and damage to customer relations.

But what can employers do about staff whose drinking affects their work performance or their relationships with other employees? Repeated but trivial absences from work on Mondays or Fridays or repeated episodes of time off for gastric problems or minor injuries are some of the key indicators.

But even if a manager detects a link between absence and alcohol, they are often reluctant to confront it. Indeed, the manager should confine his or her remarks to the employee’s actions, performance and conduct.

In the case of an employee who is suffering from an alcohol problem, doing nothing is short-sighted and potentially damaging to the workplace environment.

A study for the Ohio Department of Drug and Alcohol Addiction Services Evaluation and Research Unit, Columbus, 1955 on the cost-effectiveness of treatment in industry showed remarkable gains for employees who had had treatment for their addiction or dependency. There was a 91 per cent decrease in absenteeism, a 93 per cent decrease in mistakes at work and a 97 per cent fall in workplace injuries.

Prevention is always better than cure. The best approach for employers concerned about how to handle alcoholism in the workplace is to develop a written policy that sends a consistent message to all employees at every level.

This policy should be emphasised and repeated at regular intervals, not just at the time of hiring. In the lead-up to Christmas, companies should look at their policies concerning lunchtime drinking, entertaining clients and staff parties where alcohol is often drunk to excess, sometimes resulting in major and far-reaching disruption to working relationships.

There is a growing realisation, by employers and the insurance industry, that alcohol misuse and dependency problems in the workplace incur major costs at all levels. But early detection of employee alcohol abuse followed by successful treatment by a professional therapist or doctor can result in major gains in productivity and goodwill.

As the festive season kicks off, employers need to question their role in encouraging excessive alcohol consumption by staff at Christmas parties and other work-related social events.

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