Alcohol has long been a part of Australian workplace culture. Corks are popped to celebrate business successes, the drinks cart is commonly rolled out on Friday afternoons and office parties are often celebrated with an unlimited tab on the bar. While alcohol can have a positive effect in bringing colleagues together, it can also create a dangerous mix.
Despite lurid headlines about binge drinking, most Australians drink moderately. But some don’t. One million Australians are consuming, on average, eight drinks a day. That translates to the top five per cent drinking in excess of 36 litres of alcohol per person, per year. The question for HR managers is, how many of that five per cent are sitting in your workforce?
When consumed moderately, everyone knows alcohol can enhance positive emotions and social bonding. But when consumed in large amounts, it can have the opposite effect, leading to aggression, putting employee safety at risk and increasing the incidence of sexual harassment. Social drinking can contribute to a culture of intimidation where employees feel coerced in order to fit in with their colleagues. It can also increase the threat of a company’s liability for the drunken conduct of an employee.
A costly hangover
National guidelines for alcohol consumption recommend that healthy men and women drink no more than two standard drinks on any day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. However, a recent study from the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) at Flinders University suggests that many Australian workers are drinking at harmful levels. The study shows that hangovers cost businesses $3 billion a year in absenteeism and make up for 11.5 million sick days.
Workplace attitudes might contribute to this cost. Ken Pidd, deputy director (research) of NCETA and co-author of the study, says many employers are inconsistent in their attitudes toward alcohol in the workplace or at work events. “If you encourage sitting around the office or factory having quite a few beers on a Friday afternoon, what that’s doing is sending out mixed messages. People might say they’ve turned up to work hungover or intoxicated because they were drinking at work the night before.”
It’s not only employers who are bearing the cost of hangovers. Data from the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation shows one in 10 workers have experienced the negative effects associated with a co-worker’s misuse of alcohol. This can include a reduced ability to do their job, alcohol-related accidents or near misses and working extra hours to cover for a colleague. “We’ve now got people saying that they don’t want to work with certain others because they drink too much and come in with a hangover,” says Julie Rae, Head of Information and Research at the Australian Drug Foundation.
Rae adds that workplaces play an important part in shaping an individual’s attitudes to alcohol. “We see that parents, sporting clubs and workplaces play a significant role in setting behavioural expectations around alcohol and drugs. It’s important that workplaces set up expectations through codes of conduct or having a policy that alcohol will be consumed in a safe manner.”
Duty of care
Excessive alcohol consumption can create other risks for employers. Anthony Wood, partner in the employment group of law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, says there is a clear spike in complaints and legal claims that arise in connection to workplace events involving alcohol, such as office parties. “It’s cliché, but it’s true. Even though employers have become better at communicating the expected standards and behaviours, people let loose and behave stupidly sometimes.”
Wood explains that employers may be vicariously liable for the misconduct of its employees unless they have taken reasonable steps to prevent it from occurring. “It’s an exceptionally high bar to establish and many employers try to argue that they’re not vicariously liable, but I’d say more often than not, courts and tribunals will hold the employer liable for not having taken reasonable precautions on the basis that the test is so hard.”
Reasonable precautions go beyond sending a reminder about expected standards of behaviour, particularly if alcohol is going to be served without limits at an event. Woods says reasonable precautions may extend to drug and alcohol training in the workplace and rigid enforcement guidelines around the responsible serving of alcohol.
Putting a policy in place
Melbourne-based consultancy Dekro Human Resources, which works with companies to develop and implement drug and alcohol policies, stresses that policies need to encompass the safety of employees and the protection of company assets – including the organisation’s reputation.
Dekro’s managing director, Doug Taylor, says effective drug and alcohol policies should focus on the risks that impairment can pose for employees, co-workers and customers. It should also explain the personal responsibilities of employees and their obligation to present to work in a fit state.
Assessing what role alcohol plays in the workplace and culture is a first step, says Taylor. “If a business case can be made that a workplace is impacted by a negative drinking culture, then it should be easy to engage all senior managers in a program of cultural change in which a consistent message is developed and managers lead by example,” he says. However, it’s not the place of the modern human resource manager to be the moral conscience of the organisation, exposing it to unnecessary policies and red tape procedures that don’t contribute to the effective performance of the company, says Taylor. In other words, don’t look for problems where none exist.
But once an alcohol policy is in place, any breach should be treated in the same way as other performance issues, with the caveat that managers need to be extra-sensitive to underlying problems. “You need to have an understanding of why people may be drinking to excess,” says Rae. “Some people drink because of trauma in their life, or it may be self-medication for another reason or they may have mental health issues. You need to be respectful but, at the same time, you need to have a conversation about the behaviour. We would hope that employers would support staff in getting help through having things like employee assistance programs.”
Alcohol in moderation
Chris Raine, founder of Hello Sunday Morning, a national program designed to challenge Australia’s binge drinking culture, says companies should be more creative in the way they help employees unwind after a long week of work. “Alcohol is commonly consumed before going home on a Friday, but employers could be using that time to invest in their employees with free massages or group yoga lessons so people can unwind first and then they can go to the pub and maybe put the credit card on the bar,” he says. “This way, people aren’t using alcohol to relieve stress and they’ll probably drink with less intensity.”
Organising events where alcohol is not the main focus requires additional planning. The Australian Drug Foundation’s GoodHost program is designed to help reduce the likelihood of alcohol-related incidents at work functions and to ensure all guests get home safely. It includes a checklist incorporating suggestions such as ensuring alcohol is always accompanied by food and that low-alcohol and alcohol-free drinks are available.
“We’re not saying don’t drink. We’re saying be mindful when you’re drinking,” says Rae. “Make sure drinks are not topped up when someone’s halfway through one because they will lose track of how much they’re drinking. Don’t play drinking games and don’t create a shout environment because people will drink at the speed of the fastest drinker. Think about how you want to behave as an organisation and the values that you want to be reflected among your employees through their behaviour.”