[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 20:44 GMT
Work and drink: You asked an expert
Drinkers in a pub
  Click here to watch the forum.



A TUC report has said that few employers have adequate policies for dealing with Britain's growing drink problem.

"A Potent Cocktail" reveals that up to 14.8 million working days are lost as a result of drinking.

It also estimates that the effects of alcohol abuse such as long-term sickness, unemployment and premature death costs the UK economy around 2.3bn a year.

The document calls for more co-operation between the Government, unions and employers to tackle the problem.

What can be done to reduce workplace drinking? Have you had adverse experience of it?

You put your questions to Owen Tudor, senior health and safety officer at the TUC, in a LIVE interactive forum.


Transcript

Newshost:
Hello and welcome to this BBC News interactive forum, I'm Susanna Reid. Employees are drinking more than ever before resulting in 15 million working days being lost as a result of alcohol related problems. That's the finding of a new report by the TUC. And now it's calling on companies to develop clear rules on when alcohol is acceptable at work. So what are the limits? Well joining me from our Westminster studio to answer your questions is the TUC's senior health and safety officer Owen Tudor. Owen thanks very much indeed for coming in and joining us. Very briefly if you can just outline what you think is the main problem here, at the heart of the survey.

Owen Tudor:
I think the main problem is that employers aren't adapting to the way in which people's alcohol consumption has increased and they've not worked out how to actually deal with what that does to people's employment. Bluntly we don't really know enough about how alcohol affects people at work and we don't know how work affects people's consumption of alcohol because what we're worried about obviously is that with an increase in stress levels at the workplace people are drinking more to try and take the pain away.

Newshost:
Okay well let's plunge in with questions from viewers who have e-mailed us. Firstly an anonymous one, somebody just describes themselves as alcoholic and I think this goes straight to the heart of the problem you're addressing. It comes from somewhere in England. "I drank alcoholically for many years, including lunchtimes. Firstly, I under-performed for my company, secondly, my personal life became increasingly desperate. I'd like to see less social tolerance of drinking - why does our society regard alcohol as an acceptable stimulant, not a drug whose misuse causes untold damage?" I mean the point is we finish work, relax, unwind with a drink, it's socially acceptable and hard to resist isn't it?

Owen Tudor:
The problem I think partly goes to the fact that this is an old drug, very often you find that people are much more tolerant of old drugs than they are of new ones and we wouldn't - it's a little bit like the motorcar - if you were introducing the motorcar now you wouldn't get it through the health and safety checks. But it's a serious problem - alcohol at work. One of the things that we've found, unhelpfully, is that workplaces are not very good at supporting people with an alcohol problem and they do need support. What tends to happen is that people ignore it and ignore it and ignore it until it becomes too big a problem to ignore and then they deal with it punitively and the person concerned is dismissed or on disciplinary charges and so on. It would be better if things were caught earlier, if people have got problems, and it would be better if those problems were dealt with as problems rather than disciplinary issues. If you have that happen then I think people would be a lot more willing to come forward if they felt they did have a problem. In some industries our unions have developed buddying systems, where their work mates come forward with the evidence about the problems. At the moment people won't do that in most industries because they think they're going to get someone into trouble.

Newshost:
Well indeed. Stuart Macintosh has e-mailed us and says: "It should come as no surprise that in a country that has the longest working hours in Europe the incidence of stress related drinking is so high." Simply put - it's work that's driving us to drink so much and therefore employers must accept the liability for this. I mean there must be a significant amount of stress related drinking in your report.

Owen Tudor:
Well we think there is, yes. The problem is that too often alcohol is considered to be the solution to the problem and it clearly isn't - not just for those people whose health is seriously affected by the alcohol but it isn't in any case and stressed workers are going to be unproductive for all sorts of reasons, not just to do with alcohol. There's too much of a temptation to hope that the problem of stress will go away, go home in the evening and have a few drinks, it may actually have no impact whatsoever on your working performance - the drinking - it may not be good for you, as an individual, and the stress itself is not good for the person who's employing you because they're not getting the best out of you when you're actually in work. So all too often stress is seen as something which you can deal with through alcohol and you can't. The way to deal with stress is the way to deal with any health safety hazard of the workplace which is to assess the risks and then work out how to solve the problem and prevent it, rather than simply taking something to make the pain go away.

Newshost:
You've mentioned a buddying system as one potential solution, Niall from England says, as you've been saying: "People resort to alcohol to de-stress but what else can be done to reduce stress in the workplace?" Because presumably there's preventative measures that we can put in place before people even get stressed, let alone before they turn to alcohol to deal with the stress?

Owen Tudor:
Absolutely, what we'd prefer people to do, and this has had the backing of people in the - judges - in the Court of Appeal, is we'd prefer to them to actually report their stress problems at an early stage, when they're beginning to feel the problem so that the employer can do something about it. Some of the ways you can deal with stress are taking on more staff, adjusting the way people do their jobs so that they can perhaps cope with peaks of demand by having less work to do around those peaks. There's all sorts of ways that you can deal with stress in the workplace but first you need to identify that it's a problem and secondly the employers need to be committed to making sure that it'll go away because all too often there's a feeling that short term you can deal with stress as a problem, you can cope with it - people have a few drinks - and then it'll go away and actually that doesn't make stress go away, that just pushes it under the carpet so that it comes back and destroys the business later on.

Newshost:
Keith from the UK says: "Does the rise in drinking after work reflect a lot of other social activities and is this perhaps a consequence of working longer hours?" Because one way to de-stress is to get involved in other social activities, of course if you don't have time to do them that can lead to more stress.

Owen Tudor:
Yeah hitting the bottle can be a quick solution to the problem and an easy solution to the problem rather than something that actually does you more long term benefit.

Newshost: So would you encourage people to go and or for employers to allow more time to do other things, perhaps playing football after work or even in a lunchtime or going to the gym - that sort of facility?

Owen Tudor:
The best employers provide all sorts of things like that for their workforce, sometimes in work time. And let's not forget it's not too long ago that you did actually used to have social clubs that weren't just about drinking, they were actually about sports and entertainments like that. The critical thing, however, is I think to tackle the causes of stress. Any system which operates solely on the basis of trying to de-stress you and cope with the after effects of stress is a second best solution. If you're a really good employer you'll be trying to tackle the causes of stress in the first place and the things that you're doing, in terms of providing social and community activities, will be dealing with stress outside the workplace.

Newshost:
Warren from the UK provides a counter argument to this and says: "I think employers have encroached quite enough into our personal lives without being able to describe precisely what we can and can't do in our spare time. Why single out drinking, it's not the only thing that leads to sickies - how many work days are lost from sports injuries, DIY injuries or hobbies?" Do you do surveys into that kind of thing?

Owen Tudor:
We don't, I have to say, but one of the reasons for that is because there's nothing actually inherently long term harmful about sports injuries and DIY injuries - these are not going to impact on you long term unless it's a catastrophic injury, which is a different order of things. The problem with alcohol I think is that it's very often caused by the workplace and it's also the case that it won't be your work that causes you to have a sports injury, unless of course you're a professional sports man or woman. But the reason why we're focusing on alcohol - and we do obviously look at a lot of other issues as well - is because there is such a lack of understanding and lack of approaches to deal with the issue. And I have a lot of sympathy for the suggestion that it's not up to employers to interfere in how people lead their private lives, the issue is partly what can employers do to make sure that they're not doing something which causes someone to turn to drink and also dealing with the fact that people may well be bringing the drinking problems into the workplace. It is also the case, I think it has to be recognised, that very often what employers spot with the policies they currently have is not the problem drinkers, they find people who are not, because problem drinkers, very often, are actually quite good at disguising the fact that they've got a problem, that's why the buddy systems work quite well because they tend to hide it from the boss more than they'll hide it from their colleagues.

Newshost:
Well Andy in Leyland in Lancashire says: "Should it be left to people to know their own limits?" Should it?

Owen Tudor:
I think there's a certain degree of personal responsibility involved in this and people will react differently to different amounts of alcohol and there are lots of programmes outside the workplace from the Department of Health and so on to encourage people to know what safe drinking is. I think it's up to the employer, as I said, to make sure that people aren't being driven to drink by anything at work and then up to the employer to make sure that employees know what is expected of them in terms of alcohol and work and what to expect if anything does go wrong.

Newshost:
Well on that point Tariq Mecano says: "If 14.8 million days are lost as a result of drinking - what proportion of those are Mondays and Fridays? I would humbly suggest that the best policy an employer should have for dealing with these occasions is a system of warnings, fines and in extreme cases dismissal."

Owen Tudor:
The trouble is I think that's a punitive approach which we found simply doesn't work. I mean forget the question about whether it's fair or not, our understanding is that these processes just don't work. What happens is that certainly with problem drinkers, as I say, they manage to hide what's going on and they will simply switch their drinking patterns to make sure that they can survive within that workplace. It's undoubtedly the case that if people are drinking more at the weekend then the impact on their work is going to be more around those sorts of days - Monday and Friday - although you'd be surprised how many employers come to us and say that they're very worried that 20 per cent of absences are on a Monday, which is rather what you'd expect out of a five day week. What we want to see is employers having a proper policy to deal with alcohol, then everybody knows what's going on. They have procedures ahead of time to cope with the issue and employees know what's expected of them and what to expect.

Newshost:
Two different opinions about taking sick days if you have an alcohol related problem. Geoff Harding from England says: "It's risible that the TUC should suggest that drinking is the only cause of so many lost working days when several unions insist their members take all of their statutory sick days as they are and I quote "an entitlement". Isn't it this belief that sick leave is an extension of normal holidays that needs to be addressed before any other cause of absenteeism?" How do you respond to that - the idea that authorised sick days are as big a loss to industry?

Owen Tudor:
Well I simply don't think the evidence bears it out. Sick leave has actually been declining in the private sector over the last 10, 20 years and if it was just a form of annual leave I don't think that would be the case - annual leave is rising, sick leave is declining. And I also don't know of any trade unions which would advise people to take what are known as statutory sick days, in fact our understanding is that the practice where people were told oh you can have a certain number of days sick every year has been declining. Employers ought to be looking at sickness and everybody ought to be looking at sickness absence in terms of how can we reduce the things which cause people to go off sick? It is clearly the case that people who work in a workplace where everybody's unhappy, where people don't enjoy coming into work everyday, are going to see higher levels of sickness than those workplaces which aren't in that category - where people like their jobs, get on with the people they're working with and so on and that's one of the unavoidable facts of life. And if you want to make sure that sickness absence reduces then the thing to do is make sure people have a reason to come into work. I hesitate to say this to the BBC but daytime television is not yet exciting enough to be a better option than a rewarding job.

Newshost:
Can I just get absolutely clear Owen - are you ascribing most of this problem of alcoholism and the alcohol related problems at work to the fact that people are stressed at work?

Owen Tudor:
We don't know the evidence for it, we would like to see more research. One of the reasons for our report today is to say we need to see more research about this. We know how many days are lost through lots of other workplace injuries and it's certainly not true, as one of the earlier questioners asked, that we're saying that alcohol is the main problem or the only problem in this regard. But we don't know yet what the impact of alcohol is precisely on work in the way that we do with lots of other hazards and that's one of the reasons why we want the Government to include in its national alcohol strategy more research into what the impact of alcohol on work is.

Newshost:
Well Melissa from Birmingham has e-mailed us, while we've been talking, backing up that point: "Colleagues I work with go out on benders at least twice a week and invariably either skip work or come in late the next day unable to complete any of their tasks." But the question we need to ask ourselves is why, says Melissa, and she puts that down to conditions at work. Let me put this point to you from Alasdair Allan in Scotland: "Wouldn't the real solution for this issue be for firms to promote flexibility in holiday taking? Allow say five days holiday a year to be taken at short notice, even the morning it's taken, personally I lose four or five days a year from the occasional midweek drink. I'd be far more comfortable to use a day's holiday than to pull a sickie." Now that sort of reminds me of an idea that someone came up with called "duvet days" where you simply call in and say this is one of those days I'd like to take, it's not then a loss to industry, it's actually worked into the budget almost, someone can then stay at home and watch daytime television however uninteresting you might think it is.

Owen Tudor:
I've got to say people oughtn't to be going out on benders that leave themselves so sick the next day that they can't go into work, it's not particularly good for you to do that. But yes employers ought to be flexible, that's absolutely critical. There are some jobs where that's not really going to be possible, there are lots of jobs where it really is and this shouldn't just be a matter about alcohol. In a lot of jobs it's perfectly possible for the people doing them to work out their own time and that's how we got flexitime introduced and so on. And the most productive workforces are those workforces which are working at the times at which they feel most able to work. In lots of jobs that's possible, in lots more jobs than employers think it is, it is possible, there's no need to be chained to your workstation, your desk or so on unless there is something specific that keeps you there and the more flexible employers are the less problems they're going to have all round.

Newshost:
John from the UK, this is our final e-mail: "Isn't this debate symptomatic of the malaise in modern society which is turning us all from individuals into parts of a machine required to operate at a 100 per cent efficiency all the time? We are human after all."

Owen Tudor:
Well I think that's absolutely right and that's where flexibility comes into it. When we're saying that we want employers to have a policy the whole purpose of having a policy is so that you can then know what your scope for individuality is, in a sense, it's defining the boundaries and saying what we'll do in certain circumstances. The problem with a completely laissez faire attitude, which simply says well we'll decide what to do with you after it's happened, is that a lot of people get caught out that way and end up in a situation they really didn't want to get into.

Newshost:
Okay Owen Tudor from the TUC thank you very much indeed for joining us. I'm afraid that's all we have time for. My thanks to all of you for sending in your e-mails. From me Susanna Reid and the rest of the team goodbye.





LINKS TO MORE HAVE YOUR SAY STORIES


 

INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific