Sobering thoughs: the true cost of alcohol

Society’s hands-off attitude to adult alcohol consumption is leading to problems in the workplace, writes Mark Drinkwater

Earlier this summer I went to a friend’s 40th birthday party and observed an example of our double standards about alcohol consumption.

One group of guests were concerned about their teenage children’s binge drinking. But it soon became apparent there wasn’t such a chasm between their offspring’s attitudes and their own – within hours they, too, were inebriated and clowning around, thanks to the host’s free bar.

Of course, it’s not just binge drinking that is a problem. Another friend of mine has made some efforts recently to stave off his habitual intake of alcohol. He had never thought of himself as a big drinker, but realised that his habits had gone from the occasional drink to finding himself having a nightly tipple that seemed to steadily increase in volume.

Met with derision

To stem the slippery slope into problem-drinking, he decided to take some steps and instituted “fire breaks” into his week: two days when he refrains from drinking. “A chance for the liver to recover,” he informed me.

His actions seemed a step in the right direction. But, when he confessed to this change in habits to some mutual hard-drinking friends, news of this twice-weekly abstinence was met with derision.

With attitudes like this, it’s little wonder that alcohol presents some real difficulties for the workplace, with the Institute of Alcohol Studies estimating that up to 17 million working days are lost annually due to alcohol-related absence.

Like others in stressful jobs, social workers might be considered at higher risk of developing a drinking problem.

Refuge in drink

Most of us probably know a fellow worker who has sought refuge in drink as a response to the stresses in their lives. In two different jobs, colleagues of mine have done so with regrettable consequences. Although there were many differences in the two cases, both followed similar patterns.

At the start, there would have been a period where they had both successfully hidden their problem. Next, came a phase where it was noticeable that they smelt faintly of alcohol and were possibly drunk at work, though seemed to be managing their workload. Finally there came a point where they turned up intoxicated and unable to function. It was at this point that they were challenged forcibly. Of course, by then it was too late. Both cases ended in dismissal following formal disciplinary proceedings.

You can never know what might have been the outcome if things had been handled differently, but there was a period where managers (and perhaps colleagues) should have responded to the early warning signs and intervened more decisively. The trouble was that the employers went on hoping the problem would go away.

Doubly sad

While this initial “do-nothing, wait-and-see” attitude might sometimes work, it certainly wasn’t the best approach in these two cases.

The sad thing was that both workers were good at their jobs prior to their difficulties. It was doubly sad that the agencies they worked for were ones involved in looking after with people with addictions, including alcohol.

Looking back, neither employer had the right procedures in place to address the problems early enough. The conciliation service Acas has guidance – Health, Work and Wellbeing – about how to manage problems associated with alcohol in the workplace. It’s worth a read, as we have a duty to look after our staff and colleagues, as well as our service users.

Mark Drinkwater is a south London community worker

This article is published in the 10 September 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “It’s time to take adult alcohol consumption more seriously”

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