Alcohol Concern's recent survey of MPs revealed that a quarter of them believe there is an unhealthy drinking culture in Parliament. Not surprising, really. A job in parliament, like any other workplace, involves deadlines, targets, meetings, strained relationships, the gossip mill... all the things that many of us say make us want to unwind with a drink at the end of the day. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but many of us don't realise that relatively low levels of consumption can have a significant impact on health and wellbeing. In a recent survey over two thirds of employers identify alcohol as a major threat to employee wellbeing but less than half claimed to have an alcohol policy.
I spend a lot of time talking to employers about this and there are some good (and not so good) reasons why they're reluctant to tackle the issue of alcohol. The most common reasons I'm given are:
- I like a drink myself so how can I bring it up with my staff.
- In this economic climate, you can't blame people for wanting a drink.
- What staff do outside the office is their own concern.
- It's just the culture in this industry - everybody does it.
- If they're not actually turning up p**sed, there's not much we can do about it
I'm also often asked about random alcohol testing and whether I could possibly 'randomly' test 'Fred' in accounts because everyone knows he's a bit of a lush. One company director I spoke to recently said "It's okay, we don't have any alcohol problems here, people know better than to talk about it, because our policy is to fire them." Others tell me that they need irrefutable proof of a problem before they can act.
Often, employers do want to be responsible and support their staff, but it can be daunting opening up that big old can of worms that is the Great British public's relationship with alcohol. The key is to work proactively rather than reactively, starting with an open and frank discussion about alcohol as the basis for an effective alcohol policy.
There's been a lot of research conducted about alcohol - what we drink, why we drink, how it affects us and the research has also identified factors that encourage an unhealthy workplace culture around alcohol. Here are the top five*:
1. A workplace culture that accepts excessive drinking as normal.
2. A work environment where employees feel alienated.
3. The availability of alcohol at the workplace.
4. The lack of adequate supervision and support.
5. The lack of and/or reluctance to enforce alcohol policies.
Wouldn't it be nice if Fred's manager felt comfortable asking Fred if he's okay because if he needs some support with his drinking, the company will help him to get through it. Or if the policy was to reassure staff that they won't get fired if they have the courage to talk about their drinking. Parliament, like other organisations, should be fostering an environment which encourages people to deal with alcohol related problems rather than hiding them away.
Alcohol Concern offers a range of workplace alcohol solutions to support businesses who want to develop and effective alcohol policy.
*National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2000)