Dry January has become an annual global event. For some employees, however, managing for a month without alcohol may seem like an impossible challenge. This can be particularly so for overseas staff.
The extra challenge of working abroad
Overseas staff likely face a number of additional strains. Feeling isolated abroad can make an employee turn to alcohol as a way to forget their problems, or as a way to try to fit in. The expat lifestyle is often blamed for an increase in alcohol consumption, and social drinking can quietly slide into something closer to dependency.
The UK’s chief medical officer’s guidelines are that to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level, men and women should not drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis. This is the equivalent to six pints of average strength beer or six medium (175ml) glasses of average strength wine. The risk of developing a range of health problems, including cancers, stroke, heart disease, and liver disease, increases the more someone drinks on a regular basis.
It is clear, therefore, that many employees (and employers) may well benefit from reducing their alcohol intake. Even for those who are not alcohol-dependent, cutting back can help to ease physical and mental health and wellbeing issues.
If employees are spread around the world, and with hybrid working now so common, the challenge for the employer is to create and maintain a dialogue and a system of communication and support across all areas of wellbeing. Dry January is a good way to encourage employees to think about their alcohol consumption, it provides an opportunity for people to cut back and a good time to introduce support for those who want to reduce or stop their intake altogether.
Offering support through the workplace
The first thing is to establish what support is needed. It can be helpful to run anonymised surveys. These can highlight alcohol use and misuse, or indeed other issues that need addressing. Surveys can be run online, making them easy to access wherever in the world employees are based.
Attitudes to alcohol differ around the globe, with some countries having total bans and others having a much more relaxed stance. Alcohol misuse is, however, a problem the world over. The highest rates of alcoholism are in Hungary and Russia. But with South Korea and the United States also within the top eight countries for alcohol use disorder, the issue is widespread.
As well as the geography of where employees are based, the demographics of the workforce can also give an indication to the sort of support that is likely to be needed. Alcohol consumption can cause death and disability relatively early in life. In people aged 20-39 years, approximately 13.5% of total deaths are attributable to alcohol  and males tend to outnumber females in both alcohol consumption and alcoholism .
There is a lot of support available for employees who have issues with alcohol, as well as for other substances and addictions; and once employers have established what support is required, the next question is where best to find it.
Any employee in need of support with alcohol cessation should be provided with professional assistance. While colleagues and line managers should be encouraged to be supportive, they are not qualified to tackle such situations themselves, so providing access to professionals is a must. As well as access to alcohol-cessation programmes, wider support may also be given to help employees with any underlying issues, as alcohol abuse is often related to further problems like money worries or relationship difficulties.
If a full cessation programme is not feasible, then the employer should at least be able to provide clear signposting to organisations that can help. Global employee assistance programmes can often assist with this and also often offer counselling for related issues.
Benefits for all
Any reduction in alcohol intake is beneficial. Short-term benefits include having more energy, better-looking skin, and saving money. Longer term benefits include lower blood pressure; lower risk of stroke, hypertension, cancer, and liver disease; lower cholesterol levels; better mood, memory, and quality of sleep; and help with weight management.
Dry January is a good opportunity to encourage not just overseas staff, but all employees, in all countries, to take a look at their alcohol consumption and to consider reducing it. Dry is not just for January though, and continued, consistent messaging and support can help employees to cut back long-term so that they can reap the benefits of better health and wellbeing, as can the employer.
- UK low risk drinking guidelines: the Chief Medical Officers’ advice | Drinkaware
- Alcoholism by Country 2022 (worldpopulationreview.com)
- Alcohol (who.int)
Sarah Dennis joined Towergate Health & Protection in 2014 following over 17 years working as a consultant and in senior management roles in international health insurance companies.
Winner of the International Intermediary of the Year 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2015 and Highly Commended in 2009, 2012 and 2016, in the Health Insurance & Protection Awards - Sarah is a speaker, committee member and contributor to both global industry conferences and international publications.
Sarah is responsible for corporate international private medical insurance and expatriate cover, and the development of exclusive products for SMEs and expatriate groups.