Workplace Wellbeing Professional had the opportunity to sit down with Janet Hadley to discuss workplace alcohol use disorder.

Janet is the director of Choose Sunrise, an organisation founded on the belief that nobody should ever feel afraid to ask for help with alcohol use. Through experienced speakers and resources, Choose Sunrise helps the UK workforce navigate the grey area between social and problematic drinking. Janet creates a safe space in the workplace where people can explore their relationship with alcohol with zero judgement.

Janet recently used her expertise to attend as a guest speaker at the online webinar What are we going to do about Dave?. The webinar discussed the latest data on drinking habits in the UK, the impact of alcohol use on UK businesses, tackling the taboo, how to spot an emerging alcohol use issue in the workplace and much more. In light of this, Workplace Wellbeing asked the following:

Is alcohol use disorder common among the UK workforce?

Yes, is the short answer.

There’s a myth about people who drink to excess. When the general public think of the word alcoholic, they think about people who are homeless, people who drink in the mornings and people who are unemployed. There’s a real stigma and characterisation of someone with alcohol use disorder. In reality, this is far from the truth.

A survey from Alcohol Change UK found that in the UK workforce, between 3 and 5 per cent of all absence is alcohol-related. Often, employers aren’t recognising this, because they’re faced with sickness excuses such as food poisoning or taking the day off because their child is unwell.

However, when you anonymously ask people the real reason they’re ringing in sick, the statistic is 3-5% due to over-drinking. So, it’s much more commonplace for people to consume too much alcohol to the point where they can’t go to work the next day.

77% of the highest earners reported drinking in the previous week compared to 45% of the lowest earners. Essentially, the more money that people earn the more likely they are to drink alcohol. Moreover, around 70% of people in very deprived areas drink, and 90% of people who live in the most affluent areas drink.

Interestingly, the strength of drink that people take on as they go up the pay grade gets stronger too. People tend to move from beer to wine – and wine is sometimes the tipping point for people due to its strength. There’s a culture surrounding wine in the middle and upper classes. People are drinking to quite dangerous levels without always realising that they’re doing so. Then, what tends to happen, is something like a bereavement which causes social drinking to tip into problematic drinking.

When you look at the number of units of alcohol that are sold in the UK compared to the results of alcohol consumption surveys, there’s a huge amount of missing alcohol. Therefore, people massively underestimate the amount that they’re drinking. We know that around 20% of adults don’t drink at all, but the statistics show that there are millions of people drinking more than 14 units per week. Although they may not have alcohol use disorder, they have a lot of risk factors that might contribute towards it.

40% of all workplace industrial accidents in the UK are related to alcohol or drug use. Moreover, a drink-aware survey revealed that 20% of all workers felt that they’d been pressured to drink more than they wanted to by co-workers. So, all in all, the problems that alcohol causes in the workplace are absence, loss of productivity, increased risk of accidents, and increased risks of grievances (50% of all sexual harassment claims involve alcohol).

Increasingly, we are seeing sobriety as an inclusion issue too. We have 20% of adults who don’t drink at all, and we’ve got 3-4 % who are vegan. Currently, we’re catering to vegans at every hospitality occasion but we’re not catering for people who don’t drink. Simply offering coke and lemonade as a choice is not good enough.

Ultimately, employers need to up their game in terms of how they’re treating alcohol in the workplace.

What portion of the UK workforce is impacted the most by alcohol use disorder?

Stress is a key factor.

As people move into more stressful roles, alcohol tends to pop up as an issue (an issue being where people are drinking to dangerous levels to the point of addiction.) Professions that are most impacted are doctors and healthcare professionals alongside people in the entertainment industry, hospitality, the legal professions, building and construction, the police and the military. The one thing that they all have in common is high levels of stress.

In the hospitality sector, people are surrounded by the drinking culture, and it’s very normalised in that industry. Legal professions are easily related to the drinking culture as people are expected to entertain clients by drinking alcohol. Whereas with the police and the military, and doctors and healthcare professionals, over-drinking is often stress-induced.

Long working hours and night shift working are other risk factors which a lot of these professions have. Even just being part of the upper to middle-class population is a huge risk factor that people don’t necessarily associate with alcoholism, although they should.

Do employers have a duty of care when it comes to their employees and issues surrounding alcohol use and how might they detect some warning signs if they believe an employee is struggling?

Employers have a duty of care when it comes to their employees.

Currently, there is nothing specifically called out in employment law about how offering alcohol may or may not affect that duty of care. While Alcohol Use Disorder is not classed as a disability in this country, issues that could cause somebody to drink to dangerous levels could be classed as a disability. For example, if somebody is drinking to excess because they are depressed, then could that depression be considered a disability? Is the person depressed because they’re drinking or is the person drinking because they’re depressed? This grey area makes it tricky for employers.

There are also issues in relation to inclusion. We’re starting to see a trend coming through with complaints around inclusion, workplace events and protected characteristics. For example, consider a Muslim who never attends the workplace Friday night drinks. However, on those Friday night drinks, this is when the boss gets tipsy and tells everyone what promotions are coming up. This colleague is then at a disadvantage as they are never aware of any upcoming opportunities.

There’s a risk for employers in the future because organisations, such as Alcohol Change UK, are campaigning hard to make alcohol use disorder a protected characteristic and to make social inclusion a requirement in the workplace. Employers will need to be careful in terms of how they use alcohol in workplace situations to avoid getting into tricky situations.

The classic warning signs for detecting alcohol misuse include:

  1. Smelling like alcohol.
  2. Frequent hangover symptoms such as headaches, irritability, tiredness, mood swings and falling asleep at work.
  3. Using mints and mouthwash excessively.
  4. Frequent absences (particularly on Mondays and Fridays) or unexplained disappearances at work.
  5. A decline in productivity and concentration.
  6. A decline in overall personal hygiene or appearance.
  7. Withdrawal of contact from co-workers.

How can managers detect alcohol misuse disorder in employees who are working entirely from home?

This is important because the world has changed so much due to the pandemic.

There’s a startling statistic which found that throughout the pandemic, around 70% of adults drank alcohol during working hours. Of course, this could be a little misleading as many organisations had social teams call or a virtual quiz on a Friday as they were unable to see each other in person. This could be why this figure was so high.

Nonetheless, hybrid working has certainly made it a lot more difficult for managers to spot the signs. So, there are a couple of factors to think about. Employers should be mindful of anyone who has a lack of daylight due to long working hours. They should be watchful for anyone unable to take breaks and have scheduled back-to-back meetings in their diary throughout the day. People who have not put a break in their day are at far greater risk of falling into an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

Mental health red flags have a definite risk factor involved, including any type of loss. Someone who has suffered bereavement, relationship loss, serious illness or divorce should be on your radar. These types of life events are a huge risk factor for alcohol misuse. It’s worth checking in with them and, if you’ve got a good enough relationship, ask how they’re dealing with some of these losses and whether they are drinking. You might be surprised by what comes up.

Another red flag is when someone talks about needing a drink. When I was a whiskey drinker, I was very open about my drinking. I would say things like ‘I can’t wait to get home and have a drink.’ People who talk about needing a drink are probably starting to get into that grey area that everyone goes through in between social and problematic drinking.

Employers should also be watchful of erratic behaviour. If you’re meeting with somebody on teams on a regular basis, and you find yourself wondering which version of this person they’re going to be that day (happy, cheerful / sad, irritable), that could indicate that there’s something going on in terms of their mental health and relationship with alcohol.

One final thing to look out for are single sick days. Of course, people will talk about hangovers or drinking too much the night before, but those who regularly take singular sick days can be an indication that something more serious is going on with their drinking habits.

Editor at Workplace Wellbeing Professional | Website | + posts

Joanne is the editor for Workplace Wellbeing Professional and has a keen interest in promoting the safety and wellbeing of the global workforce. After earning a bachelor's degree in English literature and media studies, she taught English in China and Vietnam for two years. Before joining Work Well Pro, Joanne worked as a marketing coordinator for luxury property, where her responsibilities included blog writing, photography, and video creation.