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HR’s role in changing the conversation about alcohol use

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Terri-Lynn MacKay
Terri-Lynn MacKay is mental health director for ALAViDA, a product of LifeSpeak Inc.

When is the last time you thought about your relationship with alcohol or about your employees’ drinking habits? For HR and benefits professionals, it’s becoming increasingly important to understand that alcohol use is not an “all or nothing” proposition for employees. Rather, it exists on a spectrum—from people who do not drink to those who have a diagnosed disorder.

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Alcohol use can undoubtedly affect employee performance, but it is often challenging for employers to discern where exactly on this spectrum their employees might fall, and how that ultimately affects their work and the overall organization.

However, with 2.3 billion people in the world who drink alcohol, and 283 million adults living with a diagnosed alcohol use disorder—a number that increased dramatically during the pandemic—employers should be empowered to support employees on their journey toward wellbeing by giving them the knowledge to address specific needs and challenges associated with alcohol use within their workforce.

Alcohol use is a social norm for most cultures around the world. In fact, the Global Drug Survey even refers to alcohol as “the world’s favorite drug.” Children grow up watching their parents enjoy a cocktail, beer or wine in social settings and wait for the day they can partake in these same scenarios.

Because of these social norms, we fail to acknowledge that any alcohol use can be harmful to health. And because we only think about the individuals who have a diagnosed condition—those at the high end of the alcohol-use spectrum—the millions of people who show up to work hungover, use alcohol daily or binge drink on the weekends go unnoticed.

“Othering” and alcohol use

Most people have used alcohol at one time or another as a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions or to celebrate in group settings. Meanwhile, many people will drink in a way that causes problems without having a diagnosed alcohol use disorder.

The disease model of addiction was intended to destigmatize alcohol addiction, but in reality, it created an “othering” in society. “That’s not me. I don’t have a problem, but my colleague sure does.”

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While this disease model has become the dominant conceptualization in the United States, there are two important factors for employers to consider:

  • Substance use problems are not solely a neurobiological condition. To think of addiction this way is an oversimplification because it does not account for the sociological and psychological variables that influence why employees use alcohol.
  • This disease model calls for abstinence as a solution; however, abstinence as a singular solution does not account for the many ways people can grow and change in positive directions and how you, as an employer, can nurture this growth.

Alcohol use and corporate performance

While the three-martini lunch may no longer be common practice, alcohol is still present in today’s workplace. From champagne toasts over a big sale or business transaction to happy hours or cocktail parties with important business partners to the cash bar at industry conferences, it is rarely considered questionable to serve alcohol at a business event. But how does this affect business performance, and what toll does it take on your workplace culture?

See also: As mental health crisis grows, leave requests are on the rise

For starters, alcohol use is bad for the health of your employees and has been linked to cancer, heart disease, brain function, liver and kidney disease, and much more. In fact, the potential harm related to alcohol is so strong that dietary health guidelines recommend limiting alcohol intake because the health risks increase with the amount of alcohol consumed.

Not only is alcohol a contributing factor in many negative health outcomes, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 140,000 deaths each year.

This increased potential for harm also leads to increased healthcare claims costs for employers. In 2018, employees with an alcohol use disorder accounted for $10.2 billion in healthcare costs for U.S. employers.

Meanwhile, alcohol use has also been shown to impact absenteeism and productivity for employers. A report released in 2022 showed that employees in the United States with alcohol use disorder miss 232 million work days each year. Meanwhile, the cost of presenteeism due to alcohol use is estimated to be four times that of absenteeism.

Changing the conversation. Changing outcomes.

When it comes to changing the conversation about alcohol use in the workplace, it’s important to remember the spectrum of use and to create a benefits program that supports employees across this spectrum, and a workplace culture that is not centered around social drinking.

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Here are six steps employers can take to increase awareness of the harms of alcohol among employees and to support those employees looking to change their relationship with alcohol.

1. Offer health benefits that support education and prevention, as well as recovery.

Currently, in order for insurance to pay for services, an employee’s alcohol use has to reach a high level of severity before they qualify for disability management or alcohol addiction treatment. By offering resources and tools to your broader population, you can educate employees and increase the chances that more people will get help earlier, before alcohol use becomes a crisis.

2. Be aware of and engage with the growing population of sober-curious or sober-sometimes employees.

This movement began to take shape during the pandemic, when alcohol use spiked as people working remotely would often turn to alcohol as a way to cope with isolation and stress, drinking at home alone or ending their days with a virtual happy hour with co-workers and family.

Recent reports have shown that remote work can contribute to alcohol use disorders, because isolation removes a primary barrier—being around other people who aren’t drinking—and puts employees in close proximity to alcohol all day. Post-pandemic statistics show a 23% increase in substance use disorders since the pandemic began, and an estimated 9%-26% related reduction in workforce participation.

3. Teach employees what the spectrum of alcohol use looks like by sharing relatable stories in a non-judgmental way.

Help them see themselves and their co-workers in the spectrum—whether they are the mom who drinks a bottle of wine with girlfriends on the weekend to destress over her hectic life or the husband who has drinks with the neighborhood dads every Friday afternoon. Perhaps they’re the new employee who drinks too much and embarrasses themselves at the company holiday party, or the executive who drinks at lunch with clients or prospects.

Education about alcohol use can also help employees identify and prevent challenges with family members, including teens who may be sneaking alcohol or binge drinking on the weekends with friends.

4. Show employees how to make changes that can inspire and support co-workers, friends and family members.

Help employees understand that reducing or removing alcohol from their lives does not have to mean avoiding social situations. The alcohol-free drink market is growing rapidly due to the sober-curious movement, leading to greater availability of options like drinks that contain adaptogens, alcohol-free beer and faux cocktails. While these drinks can be triggers for some people who have given up alcohol, they can also be a positive reward for others.

5. Focus on prevention and harm reduction.

Help employees understand how alcohol use can impact their health. For example, it might surprise employees to learn that not only is alcohol associated with several chronic and life-threatening conditions, but it is a known level-one carcinogen like tobacco and asbestos.

6. Provide accessible, virtual resources and education about alcohol and substance use.

For example, at ALAViDA Substance Use, a product of LifeSpeak Inc., we provide confidential care that people can access anytime, on any device, and for all substances, including alcohol and drugs.

The majority of people who are reading this article have consumed too much alcohol at one time or another in their lives. For centuries, that has been an acceptable social norm. And while the world is still getting its arms around the health factors related to alcohol use, HR teams can improve the wellbeing of their employee population by supporting employees who want to change their alcohol consumption, and by educating them about the resources that are available to help them reduce the related harms.