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The causes and effects of workplace drinking

Key predictors

A government-commissioned independent review into the impact on employment outcomes of drug or alcohol addiction, conducted by Dame Carol Black and published in 2016, found that the workplace itself can be a factor in encouraging increased levels of alcohol consumption. Stakeholder responses to the review gave evidence of particular risk factors, among them long working hours, jobs with high physical demand and risk of injury, monotonous work, poor supervision and job insecurity.[1] These are highlighted in the summary of key predictors for problematic drinking in the workplace by successive studies over the past 20 years.

The review also states that different professions and groups have been shown to use substances as a coping strategy.[2]

An investigation by think tank DEMOS into the drinking culture among Britain’s youth suggested that graduate schemes attached to some leading professions come with “expectations of fairly aggressive drinking cultures”, including regular networking events involving alcohol.

The report ‘Youth drinking in transition’ indicated that “work-related drinking can be important at many stages of working life — from first initiation with colleagues through to appearing to help with achieving business objectives and career progression in some sectors. Some employers may even use drinking culture explicitly as a draw for job candidates in the first place.”[3]

Conversely, more than two-fifths (43%) of young workers thought that not drinking alcohol was a barrier to fitting in socially at work, which is described as problematic “because of the risk of marginalising staff of religious and ethnic minority groups or others who do not drink.”[4]

Impact on performance

Studies have shown that a raised blood alcohol level while at work jeopardises both efficiency and safety by increasing the likelihood of mistakes, errors of judgement, and accident proneness. There is evidence to show that impairment of skills begins with any amount of alcohol in the body (please see our Health impacts factsheet for more information),[5] which can have serious consequences for workers employed in industries centred on transportation (e.g. pilots, drivers of public transport, ferry drivers, delivery drivers, heavy goods vehicles / freight drivers, etc), heavy machinery and construction.

There are no precise figures of the number of workplace accidents attributable to alcohol, but the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that up to 40% of accidents at work involve or are related to alcohol use.[6],[7]

It has been estimated that absenteeism and “presenteeism” (when a worker is present but not performing to full capacity) due to alcohol lead to losses in productivity to the tune of about £7.3bn per year in the UK (at 2009-10 prices).[8] Additionally, a survey carried out by YouGov for PruHealth found that on any given day around 200,000 British workers turn up to work hungover from the night before, which they admit impacts directly on their own productivity and safety in the workplace, in the following ways:

… nearly one-in-four employees (22%) admit to making mistakes at work as a result of being hungover. 83% of employees who have been hungover at work admit it makes a difference to the way they work. A third say they 'drift off and don’t work at their usual pace', 28% suffer from headaches and can't concentrate and 62% reveal they generally just 'muddle through the day'.[9]

Impact on discipline and wellbeing

If problem drinking persists, it can lead to a range of social, psychological and medical problems for an employee, including dependence, which may be associated with drinking or being intoxicated during working hours, and presents in the continued deterioration of skills and increasing interpersonal difficulties.

Furthermore, those who engage in such drinking behaviours in workplace environments run a higher risk of being disciplined by their employers for various kinds of misconduct. In the armed forces, for instance, alcohol is reported to be a factor in 81% of court martial cases,[10] while the Ministry of Defence report Alcohol usage in the UK armed forces found that in the 12 months leading to May 2017, 61% of personnel were drinking at levels that placed them at a potentially increased risk or above of alcohol-related harm (see figure 3 for full breakdown).[11]


Where there is clear evidence of alcohol affecting an employee’s behaviour or performance in the workplace (e.g. recklessly comes to work having been drinking), dismissal is likely and will be held to be fair at an Employment Tribunal, especially where the work in question is particularly sensitive, such as where there may be a risk to others.[12]


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[1] Dame Black, Carol (December 2016), ‘Drug and alcohol addiction, and obesity: effects on employment outcomes’, p. 47


[2] Dame Black, Carol, ‘Drug and alcohol addiction, and obesity: effects on employment outcomes’, p. 47

[3] DEMOS (September 2016), ‘Youth Drinking in Transition’


[4] DEMOS, ‘Youth Drinking in Transition’

[5] Institute of Alcohol Studies, ‘Health impacts factsheet’


[6] Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (1996), 'Don't mix it: A guide for employers on alcohol at work', p. 1 <>

[7] International Labour Organisation (ILO) (January 1996), 'Management of alcohol- and drug-related issues in the workplace', p. 17


[8] Woodhouse, John (April 2017), 'Alcohol: Minimum pricing', House of Commons Library, p. 7, from Home Office (November 2012), 'Impact Assessment on a minimum unit price for alcohol', p. 5


[9] PruHealth (November 2006), '200,000 HUNGOVER WORKERS ON ANY GIVEN DAY'

[10] Matthews, Amy (July 2014), ‘Alcohol a Factor in 81% of Court Martial Cases’, Forces Network <>

[11] Ministry of Defence (July 2017), ‘Alcohol usage in the UK armed forces: 1 June 2016 to 31 May 2017’ <> <>

House of Commons Hansard (February 2017), ‘Armed Forces Covenant’, volume 620

[12] Your Rights, ‘Drug Taking and Drinking’, Liberty