8th October 2020

Alcohol misuse isn't prejudiced: it doesn't matter whether you've got 2p or £2 million

17th December, 2018

Jo Huey

It's no surprise that employers, specifically managers, struggle to identify and support staff that misuse alcohol. It's something that's socially acceptable, trivialised to a large degree and to add to that, just plain awkward to confront.

Staff may not be "alcoholics" but they can still misuse alcohol, which impacts their life and the lives of their loved ones. The NHS split alcohol misuse into three main areas:

1.    Hazardous– drinking more than 14 units per week or 6 units in one day (binge drinking)

2.    Harmful– drinking more than 14 units and experience health problems directly related to alcohol

3.    Dependant– Unable to function without alcohol and is the most important factor in their life (can experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop)

What about the wider impact?


It's not just the drinker that suffers, it's other people in their life. Whether that's family at home, friends, or colleagues at work. Imagine your staff member comes into the office, they turn up, they get on with their work, but not as well as they could do. That coffee cup on their desk isn't filled with just coffee! They don’t get through as much work as their peers, or at least not as accurately.

They've started to act out, get more rowdy or argumentative. Maybe they're getting confused and disorientated. They're feeling anxious and very self-conscious. They've not spoken to anyone about it because they don't think they have a problem. This affects colleagues at work, who often end up picking up the slack and sometimes covering up for them. It could also be impacting on customers.

Their own family and friends will be concerned about their drinking if it's reached a level that's more than their usual consumption. They're not likely to have any support and will be struggling too.

How is this affecting their mental health?


There's always a reason that people drink to excess, it's either to feel a certain way e.g. more confident at work, more outgoing, or sometimes it's to numb certain feelings. Often people that drink too much have mental health issues, known as dual diagnosis.


Staff that are dependant don't fear death, they fear life. They can't cope and they often make bad decisions. Their self-esteem, self-worth and confidence will be very low. Often experiencing anxiety and depression. This combination can alter their behaviour, they'll be having internal struggles and probably no one to talk to.


Would you know if your staff member was misusing alcohol?


It's not something they're going to advertise, there's a lot of guilt and shame around alcohol misuse. Specifically, when the person realises that they're bringing it into work because they can't function without it.

Signs to look out for are:

·      smell of alcohol

·      disorientated

·      disappearing for periods of time

·      isolating themselves

·      sweating

·      lack of concentration

·      having accidents at work

·      dilated pupils

·      period of absence from work

·      increase in complaints

·      confusion

·      they may start to be late to work and meetings

How can you support your staff with alcohol and mental health issues?


The most important thing is to take a non-judgemental approach. A lot of the talks and workshops I offer are mainly based around judgement and perceptions. Before you're a manager or director you're a human being, with judgements and perceptions. How does or will that impact how seriously you or your staff take this? You may be confident that you wouldn't approach it in a judgemental way, but can you say that of your staff?


Alcohol misuse is complex and far reaching in terms of the impact. Often going unnoticed because it is socially acceptable.


I'd suggest getting comfortable with alcohol misuse and when I say that, I mean specifically about how you approach it. If you're going to feel awkward and embarrassed, then you won't feel confident speaking to your staff. You're not there to fix it or advise them, just be the concerned and supporting employer.


Each person will need their own approach and the more you listen, the more you'll understand what that is. Some people will be more open than others, some you may need to spend longer with to gain trust. Again some employees will have a more serious problem than others, so the conversations will be very different depending on the impact it's having on them and their work. You'll be able to find out more about whether there's mental health issues there too, that could be why they're drinking in the first place. This may or may not be work related.


Then any professional support recommendations can be offered, with any company policies and procedures relevant to your business.


Because of the social aspect, be mindful about making light of it. Be factual and show your concern in terms of any changes you've noticed in behaviour, appearance and performance.


You can also choose to take a responsible approach for work events and social gatherings. Be careful about how you "promote" and reference alcohol. You don’t have to take a "big brother" approach but there needs to be a balance. Jokes around turning up late the next day to work, competitions of who can drink the most simply trivialise alcohol. This may all seem obvious, but believe me it still happens. It may not come from the management team, but departments within the company may come up with their own ideas!


The Numbers


Alcohol is estimated to cause 3-5% of all absences from work; about 8 to 14 million lost working days in the UK each year, according to the health and safety executive.

If you have an average of 2000 staff members (FT) on an average hourly rate of £15, the annual estimated loss figure is £343,800 in absenteeism and £375,840 in loss of productivity.  This is a low estimate as it doesn't take into account employer costs (such as NI, Pension) and replacement costs.  

To give a more relative perspective, within a room of 20 people, you're going to have 1 dependent drinker (alcoholic), 1 harmful drinker, 4 hazardous drinkers and 14 moderate drinkers.

The legal aspect


It's worth mentioning and making the connection to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. As an employer, you're responsible to take reasonable and practical steps for the health and welfare of your staff. This can include things like alcoholic misuse. Again, is this really clear to all line managers and not just high level management?

In summary, I would ask - can you afford not to be more aware of alcohol misuse in the workplace and how this affects mental health? Not only in terms of money and time, but your employees’ wellbeing! Often they may not get help and support from someone or somewhere else. You or your staff could literally save someone's life.

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Jo Huey

Jo Huey is a personal change expert, inspirational speaker and adult child of an alcoholic. Hermission is to change perceptions about alcohol misuse and the people affected. She does this through her talks, workshops to professionals and working therapeutically with clients. Jo has over 20 years of self-development experience as well as first-hand experience living with her father's alcoholism. After his death in 1996, Jo started his self-development journey. She transformed her dysfunctional life to one that is more fulfilling, connected and happy. Jo now shares her story and inspires people to know change is possible and within reach.

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