Don't let a tipple topple your business!
Alcohol abuse in the workplace
The effects of excessive alcohol consumption by employees can have damaging repercussions for your business, reducing productivity and sparking unprofessional behaviour. Deciding if, when and how much employees are allowed to drink can be a tricky business, especially for companies without an HR specialist.
Pressures and opportunities
There can be many reasons why an employee develops a drinking problem. It may be down to working conditions, for example stress, unsocial hours or monotony. Opportunity can also be a contributory factor; for example in jobs where alcohol is readily accessible or where entertaining customers is an accepted way of conducting business. Or it can be a cause well outside work altogether. Inadequate supervision coupled with opportunities to drink during working hours can sometimes allow an employee's drinking problem to get out of hand without you noticing.
Yet employees with long-term drinking problems are not necessarily the only cause of alcohol-related problems at work. Any business will suffer if its employees drink during working hours to the extent that their work suffers, if they phone in sick after a heavy bout of drinking the previous night, or if they come to work hung over.
Causes for concern
When surveyed in back in 1994, 90% of personnel directors from top UK organisations claimed that alcohol consumption was a problem for their organisation.
Whilst many viewed alcohol as a fairly minor problem involving only a small minority of employees, 17% claimed alcohol consumption was a major problem for their organisation. Overall, what concerned them most was:
These concerns are equally important for small businesses and fall into two main areas. Firstly, alcohol-related absenteeism and sickness absence which is estimated to cause 3-5% of all absences from work, equivalent to around 8 -14 million lost working days in the UK each year. You have to ask yourself how much is alcohol-related absence costing your business?
The second concern, according to Malcolm Gregory, a partner and head of employment at Withy King, a leading South West law firm, relates to the effects of drinking on productivity and safety. "Alcohol consumption may result in reduced work performance, damaged customer relations and resentment among employees who have to 'carry' colleagues whose work declines because of their drinking," he says.
"When dealing with alcohol abuse in the workplace employers need to be aware of their legal position," says Gregory. "Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employers have a general duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. This means that if you knowingly allow an employee under the influence of alcohol or drugs to work and this places that person or other employees at risk -if they are operating machinery, for example - you are liable to be prosecuted."
Gregory says that under the terms of the same Act, employees are required to take reasonable care of themselves and others upon whom they might have an effect. They might also be liable if their alcohol misuse puts others at risk.
"At the same time, to dismiss an employee immediately a drinking problem comes to light would almost certainly be deemed unfair by an employment tribunal. If you suspect or find that an employee has a drink problem, you have a duty to offer help and support, implementing your disciplinary procedure only as a final resort.
"It can be very difficult for an employee to admit to themselves or others that their drinking is out of control. They need to know that you will treat their drinking problem as a health problem rather than an immediate cause for dismissal or disciplinary action. If an employee's drinking becomes a matter of concern, rather than reprimanding them immediately, the employer should take them quietly to one side and encourage them to seek help from their GP or a specialist alcohol agency."
Malcolm Gregory advises employers to get ahead of the game by formulating an alcohol policy that states clearly what is and what is not acceptable, rather than reacting to an incident once it has happened.
"The policy will of course vary according to the nature of your business. If your employees have roles that involve driving company vehicles, for example, it is prudent to have a strict no-alcohol rule. Other office-based businesses might well have a slightly more relaxed policy - where a lunchtime drink is permissible.
"As well as providing clear guidelines on your company's disciplinary procedure following alcohol abuse at work, your policy should ideally take a proactive stance by stressing that support will be offered to any employee with an alcohol problem."
Gregory says it is useful to find out from your employees how much they know about the effects of alcohol on health and safety, what they feel about drinking alcohol during working hours and their understanding of the rules on alcohol use in your business.
Prevention rather than cure
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people who have a drinking problem are in work, according to the Health and Safety Executive. The good news is that people with drink problems can and do cut down, and there are places throughout the UK where people with drinking problems can seek expert help. Many people with an alcohol problem have been able to master their drinking problem and regain their previous work performance.
"Putting measures in place to prevent problems before they arise will undoubtedly save you time in the long run and prove more effective than trying to cope with the situation once it has become a serious threat to the business," says Gregory. "Every company, however small, should take practical steps to minimise the risks associated with alcohol."
At the end of the day, prevention is better than cure.