30th June, 2020
Alcohol at work is a difficult topic. It's hard to control what people do outside of work, and everyone is entitled to a social life. However, alcohol abuse and misuse can quickly become a problem that affects every aspect of someone's life, including safety in the workplace.
Drinking alcohol is a legal activity and part of many peoples social lives. It could be a couple of pints down the pub or a glass of wine with your evening meal. Alcohol is something that many people choose to consume from time to time. But there are certain times when it's not safe to be under the influence of alcohol (aka drunk). Even times when it's not legal. For example, when driving. If you are over the limit when behind the wheel, then you're breaking the law.
But what about at work? Well, it shouldn't come a surprise to know that drinking at work isn't something you should be doing. At work, employers have responsibilities when it comes to the health, safety and welfare of their employers and others who may be affected by their work. At work, you might need to operate tools and equipment. You might need to make quick decisions. You might even be responsible for the safety of other people. And like when you're driving, to work safely you need to be alert, focused and quick to react.
Like with driving, alcohol and work don't mix. When someone is under the influence, they are:
Need help managing alcohol problems in the workplace? A drugs and alcohol policy is a good place to start.
Alcohol is a risk to the person who is under the influence. It's also a risk to those around them.
But of course, alcohol at work isn't a simple issue. Stopping drinking at work isn't just about not letting people consume alcohol at work. According to the NHS, it takes around an hour for a unit of alcohol to be broken down in your body. So the effects of alcohol can last for hours.
How long exactly a person will be under the influence depends on what they drank, how much, how strong, and their own body. Just one large glass of wine or a pint of strong lager can take up to 3 hours to leave the system. So it's easy to see how drinking before work, even the night before, or during lunch breaks, can soon become a problem in the workplace.
Set up some clear rules around alcohol at work. Assess the risks in your business so that you can decide what rules are important to reduce those risks. Each workplace is different, but you should start by looking at safety-critical work. These are the jobs where alcohol could have the most serious consequences, e.g. operating machinery, working at height, driving vehicles.
Problems with alcohol usually develop over time, rather than being a one-off event. Before you can address an alcohol problem, you need to be aware when one is happening. Identifying problems early, before an accident happens, is the aim here. You might start by noticing a gradual decline in behaviour and performance trends.
The first people to notice a problem maybe those working closely with the individual.
When health and safety rules get broken, disciplinary action usually follows. Because health and safety rules are important, they are there for everyone's safety. And often, to comply with the law.
However, it's important to remember that alcohol-related issues are not usually a conduct issue. For some people, alcohol can become a problem. And it develops gradually. They don't drink at work, but the effects of their drinking outside of work begin to impact their ability and capability to work. Often it is more of a health concern than a disciplinary issue.
If you reach straight for disciplinary action, you are likely to make the problem worse. Because for some people, alcohol is an addiction, and the threat of disciplinary action won't magically make that addiction disappear. Instead, the individual may try to hide the problem. The additional stress may lead them to drink more. They may turn up to work in an unfit state through fear of further action, putting themselves and those around them at more risk.
If you are relying on colleagues to report when they suspect someone has a problem with alcohol, they are more likely to do this is they know that person is going to get help and support. After all, they may have a close working relationship or friendship, and not want to get them in trouble.
Instead of discipline, consider support options such as:
The earlier a problem can be identified and treated, the safer the workplace is. And often the first person to recognise when a problem is developing is the individual themselves, and those around them. Create a supportive environment. One that offers a pathway to treatment and allows individuals to get the help they need. Doing this, you allow people to seek help without the fear or additional stress of risking their job and income.
Obviously, there may be occasions where disciplinary action is needed alongside support, for example when an alcohol issue has resulted in violence or breaches of other rules. However, by getting a supportive policy in place, the aim is to identify problems before they spiral out of control. Hopefully, it will help you to retain an employee who can get back to being a safe, healthy and productive member of your team.
Take control and put a Drugs and Alcohol Policy in place that covers rules, identification, seeking help, support, relapse, disciplinary action and confidentiality.
This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.
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