Your workplace alcohol policy and home-working

Lauren Booker | April 2020 | 10 minutes

Read these tips for adapting your workplace alcohol policy for use during the coronavirus lockdown and beyond.

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As many of you will already know, a robust up-to-date alcohol/substance misuse policy is the cornerstone of effective management of alcohol in the workplace. But with unprecedented numbers of employees working from home for the foreseeable future, it’s important that your policy sets out clearly what is expected of staff whilst away from their desks but still at work.

For employers, as for everyone else, this is a time of great uncertainty and there are many challenges to face in the weeks and months to come. This makes it all the more important for employers to ensure that their employees are working in a safe environment. Research shows that stressful life events and a change in routine can lead to increased drinking[i] so it’s sensible to ensure that your staff understand how your policies relate to their working environment during this enforced period at home. Just as important is that they are supported to make sure that their drinking isn’t putting them, their loved ones, or your business, at risk.

While most alcohol policies will detail expected behaviour on work premises or during working hours, the position for homeworking is often unclear. After all, if someone is in their own home, who will even know if they choose to drink during the working day? At Alcohol Change UK we regularly work to support employers to ensure that their policy meets the needs of the organisation and its employees so we understand that adapting policies to meet a whole new working environment can be challenging – but not impossible. Here are some helpful tips when it comes to making sure that your policy is fit for purpose and protects both your workforce and your business.

1. Provide clarity on quantity

Policies often use the wording ‘under the influence’ or ‘affected by alcohol, but what does it actually mean? Heavy drinkers can consume much more alcohol than lighter drinkers, without seeming to be intoxicated. This would suggest that for adults who rarely exceed the recommended government maximum of 14 units a week, even one glass of wine may leave them ‘affected’ by alcohol, while those with a much higher tolerance are unlikely to feel the effects until they’ve consumed much more.

Providing clarification for the workforce on just how much (or how little) is allowed while working sets out definite boundaries. In many cases it’s much easier to take a ‘zero tolerance while on the job’ approach – it’s unequivocal and definitely the safest option. However, for industries where there is a tradition of alcohol use as part of the working environment, for client hospitality for example, this may contravene your existing policy rules. Consulting with staff and putting the case for a lower or zero limit will help to head off any concerns.

2. Be clear about what ‘working hours’ means

In these trying times we are constantly re-evaluating what constitutes normal. For many parents, working from home now means juggling home life with work and ‘normal’ work hours don’t necessarily apply. If paperwork has to wait until the kids are in bed, there may be a temptation to open a bottle of something before all the work is done, especially if other family members are already drinking.

If your policy refers to ‘work hours’, ‘the working day’ or ‘at work’ employees will want to know what’s changed now that they’re at home. Reiterating your policy stance on drinking and working not only helps to make clear what is acceptable, it also helps staff to structure their day so that work time is for working and leisure time remains discrete.

3. Alcohol testing might still be worthwhile

It’s unlikely that alcohol and drug testing companies are going to be able to fulfil their regular commitment to testing your staff. If your organisation has a testing regime and is still carrying out safety critical operations, you need to know that your employees and your clients are safe, and it can be difficult to know how to proceed. One way to overcome this is to encourage self-testing among employees. You can buy reliable testing kits online, and staff can check for themselves that they have zero blood alcohol concentration before starting work. While some organisations may wish to mandate self-testing, others will make this suggestion to support the wellbeing of their workforce. It can also be beneficial to remind employees of the reasons behind your zero-tolerance policy.

4. Consult with staff

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) guidance recommends consulting with staff before implementing any changes to your workplace policies. You may find that employees are relieved to have a steer about what’s expected of them. Others may feel that changing your policy is an intrusion or implies a lack of trust. Either way, it’s good to know how your employees feel about this policy and to make changes that reflect their perspectives as well as your own.

5. Offer support

An important part of any workplace alcohol policy is the offer of support for those who may get into difficulties controlling their alcohol use. In such universally stressful times as we are now experiencing, many people will turn to alcohol in the belief that it will ease stress, aid sleep and help to pass the time. Now more than ever, companies can support their employees by providing reassurance that there is formal and informal help available if they’d like to cut back on their drinking. Even if you make no changes to your policy, it’s good to offer a timely reminder to employees that help is available. Anyone who wants to check whether their drinking might be putting them at risk can complete the online screening tool on the Alcohol Change UK website.

Even for those who aren’t struggling but are interested in managing their drinking – and that’s likely to apply to more of us at the moment – you can support them. For example, you could suggest that they download the free Try Dry app, to keep track of their units, calories and money spent and understand their drinking patterns, and earn badges for meeting their goals.

6. Change your approach to breaches of policy

What if someone breaches your policy while working from home? This is a difficult area. Obviously, it’s not possible to note behaviour, smell alcohol on breath or observe other signs that someone may be drinking ‘at work’ if they’re in their own home. In these difficult times it is more appropriate to offer positive encouragement to staff to seek help if they are finding it hard to control their drinking. If your organisation offers an employee assistance programme or counselling support you could suggest these, but there are also many different support options available across the UK. You can find out more about treatment and support options for alcohol problems here.

Alcohol Change UK can support you to develop your alcohol policy for during lockdown and beyond. To find out more about how Alcohol Change UK’s services can enhance your organisation’s health and wellbeing, please contact Sherry Adhami by email or on 0781 4004963.

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[i] McGrath et al, 2016, Acute stress increases ad-libitum alcohol consumption in heavy drinkers, but not through impaired inhibitory control.

Cerda et al, 2011, A prospective population-based study of changes in alcohol use and binge drinking after a mass traumatic event.

Keyes et al, 2011, Stressful life experiences, alcohol consumption and alcohol use disorders: the epidemiologic evidence for four main types of stressors.