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The effects of problem drinking in the workplace

According to Alcohol Concern, the impact of alcohol misuse in the workplace can result from any one or a combination of several risk factors:[1]

  • Excess drinking in leisure time
  • 'Inappropriate' drinking taking place in a manner or in situations which are potentially dangerous or where there could be adverse consequences, such as before a shift, in lunch breaks or during work hours
  • Binge drinking during after work activities such as socialising around conferences or at Christmas parties

Heavy drinking in personal leisure time can have a long-term effect on employee work performance, including absenteeism, inefficiency, poor decision-making and damaged customer relations. Specific productivity problems include procrastination, inconsistent performance, neglect of detail, poorer quality of work, less quantity of work and more frequent mistakes.[2]

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 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.[3],[4]

There is evidence to show that impairment of skills begins with any significant amount of alcohol in the body. For example, in a study of airline pilots who had to perform routine tasks in a simulator under 3 alcohol test conditions, it was found that:

  • Before the ingestion of any alcohol, 10% of them could not perform all the operations correctly;
  • After reaching a blood alcohol concentration of 100mg/dl, 89% could not perform all the operations correctly;
  • And 14 hours later, after all the alcohol had left their systems, 68% still could not perform all the operations correctly.[5]

In the UK, a Parliamentary response from the Secretary of State for Defence to the query ‘what proportion of disciplinary processes in Her Majesty's Armed Forces cited alcohol as a contributing factor in 2012?’ read as follows:

Figure 1: The proportion of disciplinary procedures in 2012 where either the charges specifically refer to alcohol or drinking in (a) the Army, (b) the Royal Navy (including the Royal Marines), and (c) the Royal Air Force

 

Source: House of Commons Debates (June 2013), ‘Armed Forces: Disciplinary Proceedings’, c324W

 

The after-effects of drinking (hangovers) can also impair both work attendance and performance. 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 per cent) admit to making mistakes at work as a result of being hungover. 83 per cent 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 per cent suffer from headaches and can't concentrate and 62 per cent reveal they generally just 'muddle through the day'.[6]


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. 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.[7]

Successive studies over the past 20 years have identified key predictors for problematic drinking in the workplace (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Indicators of problematic alcohol use

 

 

Source: Stockwell, Tim, Gruenewald Paul. J., Tombourou, John W., and Loxley, Wendy (eds.), 'Preventing harmful substance use: the evidence base for policy and practice', Australia, John Wiley and Sons, pp. 191–205.

 

Alcohol Concern identified a further predictor which is most likely to occur in an organisational culture which encourages or tolerates heavy drinking:

A workforce may use drinking as a way of socialising or bonding and even have a workplace bar facility. Other organisations may traditionally use or include drinking in the process of doing business, through lunches for instance. These factors need to be acknowledged if alcohol use affecting the workplace is to be successfully addressed.[8]

 

Problem drinking in this context may prevent an employee from recognising that s/he has an alcohol problem and seeking help to deal with her/his drinking.



References 

[1]   Alcohol Concern Wales (November 2008), 'Alcohol and the workplace'

[2]   Midford, Richard, Welander, Fredrik, and Allsop, Steve (December 2009), Chapter 4.5. Preventing Alcohol and Other Drug Problems in the Workplace, in Stockwell, Tim, Gruenewald Paul. J., Tombourou, John W., and Loxley, Wendy (eds), 'Preventing harmful substance use: the evidence base for policy and practice', Australia, John Wiley and Sons, pp. 191–205

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

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

[5]   Modell and Mountz (1990), 'The problem of alcohol use by pilots', New England Journal of Medicine

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

[7]   Your Rights, 'Drug Taking and Drinking', Liberty

[8]   Alcohol Concern Wales, 'Alcohol and the workplace'