The sober truth: how employers can best manage older workers who drink heavily

It is a commonly held assumption that the heaviest drinkers in today’s workforce are those at the younger end of the spectrum. However, says Laura Livingstone, Partner and Head of Employment and trainee William Gubbins at Gordon Dadds, research shows that it’s actually older workers who are more likely to be hitting the bottle. So, what’s the best approach for employers to take when managing the impact of alcohol consumption in the workplace?

During the past decade, rather surprisingly it is the over-65’s who are the only age group who have increased their alcohol consumption, with 21% exceeding the recommended weekly unit intake. Conversely, the amount of young people who drink regularly (five days per week) has dropped from 1 in 14 in 2005, to 1 in 50.

Laura Livingstone. Partner at Gordon Dadds.

More worryingly, during the past decade, the number of over-50’s admitted to hospital because of the amount of alcohol they drink has trebled. It is of great importance that employers and HR professionals are aware that it is their older, not their younger, workers who are most likely to be drinking heavily. They need to consider the implications that this may have for their business, as well as decide on the best approach to take to manage and deal with alcohol problems at work, particularly for this age group.

The effects of alcohol on your workplace

Alcohol reduces physical co-ordination and reaction speeds, and also impairs one’s thinking, judgement and mood, which can only have adverse effects on the workplace.

Employers have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to ensure the health and safety of their employees, and failure to do so can lead to the employer being prosecuted. Alcohol creates safety risks, not only for those who operate heavy machinery or drive vehicles as part of their work (for which the Transport and Works Act 1992 makes it a criminal offence for some workers to be unfit through drink), but also increases the risk of injury in any workplace.

Productivity in the workplace is also adversely impacted. Drinking during working hours produces a lower quality and quantity of work as decision making and judgement becomes impaired. This might be made worse with those in the older age group. Drinking heavily outside of working hours leads to employees coming to work with a hangover or calling in sick, which temporarily reduces and disrupts the workforce as colleagues have to cover for alcohol-affected employees.

It is a well-known medical fact that those who are in the older age bracket are more likely to be affected by the “morning after”. It is not just short term absences that are disruptive. Clear evidence of alcohol affecting an employee’s performance or behaviour may lead to their dismissal, although caution should be exercised here if other underlying medical issues can be shown.

The workforce therefore, whether the absence is temporary or permanent, suffers a loss of employees and therefore skills, and has to incur significant costs in replacing and training new employees.

Assessing the role of alcohol in your workplace

In order to successfully address the effects of alcohol on the workplace, employers should be aware of the factors that may indicate whether alcohol is culturally entrenched in the workplace, or whether the characteristics of the workplace and work being undertaken are more likely lead to problematic alcohol use.

Clearly, all workplaces are different, and many use drinking positively as a way of socialising and bonding with both their colleagues and clients. Indeed, some organisations place so much value on this that they have a workplace bar facility. Moreover, certain industries traditionally include alcohol in the process of doing business, through lunches for example. Employers need to ensure that they have a firm grip on their culture and the ways in which alcohol contributes in their day-to-day business as well as adopting a consistent approach.

The nature of some types of work can increase the likelihood of problematic alcohol use, and these indicators include jobs those with long working hours, monotonous shift work, poor and inadequate supervision, or job insecurity. Employers must regularly assess the nature of the work being carried out and whether it has the potential to lead to alcohol abuse either during or outside of working hours. Employers should also try to be aware of their employees’ personal circumstances (where possible) and how this might contribute to their behaviour generally without seeking to pry.

What you can do

Employers must take action to both preempt and prevent alcohol becoming a problem in their workplace, and in the event of a problem arising with one or more employees, respond with an appropriate strategy.

Employers should put in place education and training programs to communicate and teach employees about the negative impacts that alcohol can have on their own health and the workplace, and to let them know of any company rules about drinking. There should certainly not be a singling out of particular age groups or categories of the workforce when providing such assistance, otherwise employers might risk discrimination and possibly claims. Managers and supervisors must also be clear about the rules and what to do if they believe that an employee’s work is being affected by their drinking, and the implications of not dealing with this, particularly where safety is a concern.

Employers should consider a written Fitness for Work Alcohol Policy, which states the company’s position on employees’ drinking. A written policy is preferable to an understanding or talk as it clearly sets out the company’s position leaving less window for misunderstanding, and employees would be able to refer back to it.

For employees who do have an alcohol problem, an employer should do all that they can to assist the employee in accessing support, treatment and counselling services. By aiding the individual in their recovery, the negative impact on the workforce is lessened as the individual may be able to return to work once they are fully recovered. Care should be taken to try to understand whether there are other underlying medical issues since although alcoholism in itself does not fall within disability legislation, someone who suffers from depression and drinks because of it might do.

Recent reports in the press have highlighted the real problem that mental health has in the workplace and particularly with middle aged men, so this is a serious issue about which employers should be aware and should address discretely where appropriate.

Of particular importance for employers in safety sensitive industries (where there are requirements to drive vehicles or operate heavy machinery) workplace alcohol testing or screening should be considered. This can be as part of the selection process, through random testing of employees, in specific circumstances after an accident, or to monitor an individual with an alcohol problem.

However, employers must be aware that screening is a sensitive issue. Securing agreement of the worker is necessary, be it through their contract of employment or obtaining the written consent of the individual for each test. Medical confidentiality must also be assured. Any screening or alcohol testing must always be supplemented by a professional assessment of the employee.

While it is key for employers to have these measures in place to tackle the problems caused by alcohol misuse, prevention is just as important, and employers must take steps to spot alcohol issues, and train their employees as to the adverse impact of alcohol on the workplace. It is also important that they are aware of the demographic of their workforce in order to be sensitive to the increased likelihood of alcoholism with certain employees.

Employment Solicitor


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