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Alcohol awareness week

Some might say that every week should be an alcohol awareness week as it seems there is an article every day in the media highlighting the issues we have in the UK from our alcohol consumption.

However, with all the media exposure and health campaigns over the years highlighting the risks of excessive drinking, and even though the overall amount of alcohol consumed in the UK has fallen in recent years, there are still too many people regularly drinking in excess of the recommended low risk daily and weekly intake. The term "low risk" is used by the NHS rather than "safe" because there is no safe level for the consumption of alcohol.

Guidelines

It is surprising that there are still many people that do not know what the recommended low risk daily or weekly intake are; what a unit of alcohol is; and how long it takes for the body to process each unit.

Guidelines from the UK Chief Medical Officers given in January 2016, recommended that men and women should not drink more than 14 units per week, compared to the previous guidelines that recommended men’s weekly intake of 21 units and women’s 14 units. The January 2016 guidelines also recommend 2 alcohol free days per week.

This weekly amount of 14 units is equivalent to 1½ bottles of decent wine or 6 pints of normal strength beer, lager or cider, with each of these units being processed as an average each hour, by someone with a healthy liver.

For some, they think that these new guidelines are the nanny state in full swing and feel that if they have the odd drink or exceed the new guidelines by a few units occasionally, then their consumption is not a problem. In reality, this could be the case however, it is when their consumption regularly exceeds the recommended daily intake or their regular intake starts to affect them socially, at work or family life that problems are more likely to occur.

Culture change

The culture that used to exist in the UK where alcohol consumed at work was the norm, sometimes labelled as “team building”, when employees would go to the pub on a Friday lunchtime or someone who came to work bragging about what a great night they had whilst swaying on their feet has changed dramatically and we now see more of a culture where employees will not tolerate a colleague consuming alcohol at work or coming to work impaired knowing they are a safety risk to themselves and others.

We have also seen a change in the way people drink, with more people now drinking at home as alcohol is much cheaper bought from a supermarket than a pub. As a result, the impact on the workplace is now more likely to come from an employee who has consumed too much alcohol at home rather than at work or down the pub.

A good policy

The increase in companies and organisations in the UK who have introduced a formal Alcohol and Drug Policy has played a part in this culture shift, especially when it is supported by regular training and awareness campaigns and a testing programme which not only provides a deterrent but can also encourage an employee to come forward to seek help if they have or are developing a dependency rather than trying to hide the issue.

Help and support

An effective Alcohol and Drug Policy will make it clear what the definition of dependency is. Many polices that we review here at Hampton Knight mix the issues of misuse and dependency and try to manage them in the same way when they are and should be treated as separate issues. The policy should also be clear on when help would be offered (this should be before the employee contravenes the policy or is asked to consent to a test); what help and support would be offered; and what the expectations are for an employee who is offered help and support.

Who manages the help and support programme?

There is a lot of conflicting advice regarding managing an employee with a dependency. Employers should be aware that although an alcohol or drug dependency is not covered under the Equality Act 2010, the cause or effect (mental or physical) could be.

It is surprising that some employers think it is the employee’s responsibility to source and manage their own help and support programme rather than the employer’s. By adopting this approach, the employee is in control of the help and support programme and their employer would not know if the employee is receiving counselling let alone complying with it. Also, the employer would not know if the employee is fit to remain at work or return to work. If an employee is allowed to remain at work with a known dependency, the employer has a known risk and if an incident or accident occurred the employer would be held responsible.

Therefore, it is recommended that HR manage the employee and not the employee’s manager as the manager is not usually skilled to handle the situation. In fact, the manager may have been the root cause and therefore could make the issue worse. HR should work with a specialist counsellor (not the employee’s GP, as they are the employee’s advocate not the company’s) that can be sourced directly, via occupational health or via Hampton Knight.

It is also not advisable to signpost an employee who come forward declaring an alcohol or drug dependency, to an Employee Assistance Programme, as although these programmes have many benefits, they are anonymous, therefore the employee may assume they do not need to inform their company of their dependency.

The policy should be clear that an employee who seeks help before contravening the policy or before being asked to consent to a test must do so via their manager, another manager or direct to HR for them to be offered help and support by the company.

One reason that companies give for not offering help and support to an employee with a dependency is the cost as they imagine there will be a rush of employees coming forward to seek help. If the policy has a clear definition of what dependency means, then in reality the number of employees seeking help will be minimal.

Hampton Knight’s experience has shown that when HR manages the programme it will result in a more structured approach which will either result in recovery and return to work for the employee or will highlight that the employee is not complying and therefore unlikely to recover and can be managed as a capability or conduct issue. Therefore, the cost of the programme is much less than leaving it to the employee to manage themselves.

For more information on what an effective Alcohol and Drug Policy and its supporting procedures should contain, please visit www.alcoholconcern.org.uk