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19 Jul 2014
Alcohol consumption in the workplace is more common than employers like to admit. Though widespread worker use characterises the Australian work environment, there are some industries in which it is more prevalent than others. The employment factors influencing the amount and frequency of consumption include workplace stressors, workplace culture, and environmental conditions. From this perspective, alcohol testing programs are risk management strategies to support the employer’s duty of care to promote workplace safety. Understanding that some industries and some jobs are more likely to lead to alcohol abuse plays a role in determining how best to implement alcohol policies and procedures.

Alcohol consumption in the workplace or employee alcoholism (addiction) presents a number of problems. Workers under the influence are more likely to have or cause accidents and are less productive. Chances are they also do less accurate work, make poor decisions, and experience relationship problems with co-workers. People who drink excessively during weekends or the hours leading up to a work shift and come to work with a hangover pose the same risks.

Alcohol as an Emotional Crutch

A number of studies conducted over the years have determined that the nature of work has as much influence on a worker’s propensity towards alcohol abuse as personal lifestyle. Work that is boring, low level, repetitive, and closely supervised can lead to worker dissatisfaction and powerlessness, and alcohol becomes a way to relieve the feelings. Workplaces that create a sense of alienation contribute to feelings of powerlessness also, creating job dissatisfaction and increasing work stress. Other job factors identified by a variety of researchers include:1

Poor work team attitudes

Long working hours

Isolated working patterns

High mobility

Job insecurity

Shift work

Job stress (including high risk of injury)

Low levels of peer accountability for work performance

Further, the occupations where employee drinking is most frequently found are unskilled staff, construction, trades, financial services, clerical, salespersons, and hospitality. Numerous studies conducted over the last 10 years involving specific industries and occupations and reporting high workplace drinking rates include police officers, transport workers, navy personnel, and miners. Past studies have also found that white collar or professional workers were more likely to use alcohol because they have more and easier access whilst working. These types of workers are more likely to have expense accounts and work meetings involving alcohol.2

Encouraging Participation in Policy Formulation

Clearly, the message is that the reasons people use alcohol in the workplace are complex and varied and that alcohol use is found in most industries and most occupations. Powerlessness appears to be a major factor in any industry. Unskilled, skilled, white collar, and blue collar workers that feel they have little or no opportunity to participate in workplace decision making are more likely to consume alcohol.

For this reason, it is recommended that employers develop alcohol and drug policies that include employee input. That is a first step in encouraging workers to accept ownership of the policies. Employers do not give up their duty to develop policies, but encouraging input from a team of workers representing various occupations and departments can be instrumental in more rapid and widespread adoption of the policies by the organisation’s members.

Random alcohol testing and screening is a critical component of a workplace safety program. Mediscreen at offers automated testing schedules and blanket onsite drug testing protocols that helps provide employers the assurance they are doing everything possible to maintain a fair and effective program.

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