Alcohol is a significant part of Australian community life, and may also even be a part of working life; for example, drinking alcohol at lunchtime, after work each day or at the end of the working week is a common feature of many industries and workplaces.
Three-quarters of Australians accept the regular use of alcohol by adults, and around half of Australians to believe that getting drunk occasionally is acceptable. However, drinking alcohol at harmful levels can have negative impacts on our health and our working lives. Alcohol can contribute to impairment and unfortunately too many employers are introducing inappropriate and punitive policies to 'control' what may not even be a problem.
While not the same, the use of drugs (both licit and illicit) raises similar issues.
How alcohol affects your health
The risk of accidental death or injury is increased when people drink harmful quantities of alcohol or 'binge drink'. This is because when people drink at these levels they are more likely to take risks and put themselves in potentially dangerous situations.
Heavy consumption of alcohol over a long period of time can cause damage to many parts of the body. Impairment of brain and liver functions can be permanent. Emotional difficulties, such as depression and relationship problems, are likely. If the person's diet is also poor, this can further affect their health.
How alcohol affects work
Drinking alcohol at harmful levels can have negative impacts on your work. These impacts may include:
- health and safety risks due to being impaired at work
- negative impacts on work performance and working relationships
- increased absence and/or lateness for work.
Because even small amounts of alcohol can impair concentration and coordination and reduce caution, road safety experts recommend that the safest option is to not drink alcohol if a person intends to drive. The best way to prevent alcohol-related health and safety problems is to avoid drinking alcohol before or during working hours.
If anyone in a workplace - the boss, manager/supervisor or a worker - is affected by alcohol at work, then the risk of an incident at work causing and injury increases. This is because even small amounts of alcohol can affect a person's judgement and performance of tasks.
However, there have been few studies on the relationship between alcohol and non-fatal work-related injuries, so reliable statistics on the level of alcohol-related work injuries are not available.
Research in Australia and the USA indicates that alcohol may be a factor in only about 5 per cent of work-related fatalities.
A person may never be actually under the influence of alcohol at work but, due to having a hangover or due to the effects of alcohol on their general health, they can still affect the workplace in other ways, such as increased absences from work, decreased work performance and/or "poor" relationships with co-workers.
A person's ability to carry out their work to the standard expected by their employer, or that they expect of themselves, may be affected by alcohol, even if the person is not actually intoxicated by alcohol at work.
If a worker has a headache (hangover), or feels sick on the days after he or she consumes alcohol, this can reduce their ability to work effectively. This not only has an impact on their own work, but can affect those around them, including co-workers, clients, or members of the public.
A person's workmates may feel that they either have to cover for him/her or "dob" them in "for their own good" or for the safety of others. No matter what they decide to do or not to do, it can place those workers in an awkward and stressful position.
Harmful alcohol use may be associated with increased ill health, which may lead to absence from and/or lateness for work.
Episodes of binge drinking may also lead to absence from and/or lateness for work. This is largely due to the common after-effects: headaches, nausea, shakiness, vomiting and tiredness.
How the workplace can affect alcohol use
The contribution of the workplace to alcohol and drug use is often overlooked. Work factors that may affect drug and alcohol consumption include long working hours, poorly managed shift work, stress, workplace conflicts, negative managerial styles, bullying, harassment, peer pressure and corporate entertaining. Other factors might include boring work, working in isolated areas, workplace culture and ease of access to alcohol and/or drugs at work.
What to do about alcohol and work
A workplace alcohol policy (or alcohol and other drugs policy) should be a written document which applies to everyone at work. It should be developed jointly by employers, management and workers and/or their representatives (health and safety representatives and/or union reps/delegates and organisers).
The joint occupational health and safety committee can be used to help develop and monitor the implementation of the policy, as this would be an appropriate committee function.
The aims of any workplace alcohol policy and procedures should be prevention, education, counselling and rehabilitation, and it should be a part of an overall occupational health and safety strategy.
A policy is not about forcing people to change or making people "dob in" their work colleagues. If people choose to use alcohol or other drugs, it is their own business. It only becomes an issue if people choose to do it in the workplace, or to come to work affected by alcohol or other drugs.
It is the responsibility of the employer to administer the alcohol policy, however, it may be the responsibility of managers and supervisors to implement the policy in the workplace.
This may include: organising and/or providing information and training about alcohol at work; ensuring that work factors do not contribute to alcohol issues at work; and managing impaired workers.
This should be done in a way that is consistent and fair to everyone.
If you believe there are alcohol-related issues at your workplace and there is no alcohol policy, consider approaching your health and safety representative, health and safety committee member/s (in the first instance) or manager/supervisor to request that a policy be developed. If you are the health and safety representative, then take the initiative, discuss the issue with your DWG members and the other reps, and then take it to management.
Where to get more information on alcohol, other drugs and work
- The Australian Drug Foundation has a page which is devoted to providing the information that everyone should know about programs on drugs and alcohol at work, where you can download more information on what is good practice. The Alcohol and work website features general information about the health impacts of alcohol and how alcohol can affect work. It also has separate sections containing information specifically tailored for workers, employers and for managers and supervisors. Information includes advice on topics such as testing, work functions and helping co-workers.
- WorkCover NSW has an "Alcohol and other drugs in the workplace" guide which has information on how to create a policy for managing the misuse of alcohol and other drugs in the workplace. It can be downloaded from this page of the regulator's site.
- Safe Work Australia has a publication - Work-related alcohol and drug use: A Fit for Work issue. This can be downloaded from the SWA website here.
- The National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) has also produced a series of data and information sheets to assist workplaces respond to alcohol and other (AOD) drug related harm in the workplace.
- HSRs should also check the section on Drug and Alcohol Support at Work on the UK TUC's WorkSmart website. The page has links to more information and a downloadable guide for workplace health and safety reps.
Last updated July 2016