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The Costs of Alcohol Dependence in the Workplace

Published: 02/10/2007

Evidence that alcohol dependence is a major workplace issue is mounting - and it's time that employers were aware of it.

Experts from the International Labour Organisation, for example, estimate that, globally, between three per cent and five per cent of the average workforce is alcohol dependent, and up to 25% drink heavily enough to be at risk of dependence.

That is costing British companies dearly. A study in Sweden, for example, showed that an increase in total consumption of 1 litre of pure alcohol per head of population was associated with an increase in sickness absence of 13 per cent. For comparison, total consumption of alcohol in the UK has increased by almost 2 litres per head of population since 1996.

In response to this growing problem, researchers from the UK Government's Strategy Unit recently made an assessment of alcohol as an issue for the workplace during the preparation of its National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy.

They found that alcohol plays a part in and around work, "both as a perceived antidote to the pressures of the modern workplace and as a way to socialise or network with clients and colleagues."

But alcohol abuse also has a grave economic impact, they found. This occurs through:

  • increased sickness absence: drinking 7+ (for women) or 14+ (for men) units per week raises the likelihood of absence from work through injury by 20 per cent;
  • the inability to work (unemployment and early retirement);
  • premature death among economically active people (people of working age).

Combined, these three factors account for a total alcohol-related output loss to the UK economy of up to £6.4 billion.

Problem drinkers tend to be identified by poor performance, high sickness absence or disciplinary problems. So what can employers do?

Many responsible employers now operate workplace alcohol policies designed both to ensure that employees are sober during working hours and also to identify employees with a drink problem.

Once identified, problem drinkers should be helped in finding an appropriate alcohol abuse treatment programme, says Sue Allchurch, director of the Lynwode Manor Group.

"Ultimately, the only person that can help a problem drinker is themselves - but it's vital that employers are able to point them in the right direction when they're finally prepared to acknowledge the impact their drinking is having on their careers and on their colleagues," she says.


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