One for the 'road'? How can employers help staff who turn to alcohol during the latest lockdown?

Blog posts

11 Jan 2021

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow 

When Big Ben chimed at midnight to signal the start of 2021 many of us sighed with relief that 2020 had finally come to an end and high hopes and new resolutions for 2021 were made.  And then January 4th happened, a national lockdown was once again in place and social media was full of jokes about the end of new year resolutions after only four days and that ‘now is not the time to stay sober’.  

Images of stressed individuals pouring numerous glasses of wine were all over Twitter, and statements such as ‘In 20 years time, we are going to be led by people who were home-schooled by alcoholics’ were shared and re-tweeted.  Although these were written with comedic intent, there is an underlying black humour regarding our relationship with alcohol in times of stress and uncertainty, with more serious concerns about the impact this can have for our overall wellbeing.  Employers may also need to consider the impact that this is having on work. 

To understand why this is a serious concern, it is important to look at the implications of the first lockdown for alcohol consumption:

  • In the interim findings of our own homeworker wellbeing survey, around three weeks into lockdown, 20% of respondents were already reporting that their alcohol consumption had increased.
  • In March 2020, alcohol sales increased in the UK by 22%, suggesting that workers were drinking more at home, with the same research indicating that employees were more likely to turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism when dealing with work-related stress in comparison to taking a break off-line, or turning their phone onto ‘do not disturb’ or turning it off completely.
  • Between March and June, 26% of employees in one survey admitted their alcohol consumption had increased, 83% responded that they drank while they were working from home at least twice a week, while 93% admitted to consuming more alcohol during the pandemic than they had previously.
  • Two in five UK business leaders had turned to alcohol or drugs to cope with mental ill health during the pandemic, with 36% admitting that they used this as a form of ‘self-medicating’ because they could not talk to anyone else about their wellbeing concerns.
  • Elevated drinking patterns were also seen among workers on furlough, with 36% reporting that they had been drinking more since lockdown began.  Additionally 15% of those drinking during furlough reported doing so earlier in the day since the start of lockdown, and 9% of furloughed workers said that they have drunk in secret, or covered up the fact that they have been drinking in lockdown.

Working through lockdown and the pandemic meant that many of the ‘usual coping mechanisms’ that employees would use, such as leisure activities, seeing friends and exercise were severely diminished, and even when we did ‘open up’ there were still layers of restrictions that made these activities feel abnormal.  Added to this was the uncertainty of work.  There were anxieties about job security, some have experienced work intensification, work-life balance became severely disrupted, and many workers reported feeling socially isolated from the rest of their team. 

All these factors echoed what Dame Carol Black’s independent review into the impact of drug or alcohol abuse and obesity on employment outcomes found: “Some working conditions, such as long working hours and job insecurity have been linked to an increased likelihood of high-risk alcohol consumption…risk factors include long working hours, jobs with high physical demand and risk of injury, monotonous work, poor supervision and job insecurity.”

So, as we begin lockdown number three, what can employers learn and implement to help their employees who may be struggling with their wellbeing and are using alcohol as a coping mechanism?  Here are a few pointers that may be of help:

  • Are communication channels open?  Do employees feel like they have somebody in their organisation they can talk to if they are struggling with their wellbeing?  It may be their line manager, or another trusted colleague, or HR, but employees need to feel that they have a safe space in their organisation where they can open up.
  • Communication about wellbeing helps if there are regular employee check-ins.  Our IES homeworker wellbeing survey found that those who were in more regular contact with their line managers reported better wellbeing.  So do ensure that the employee and line manager relationship is maintained during lockdown.
  • It may be that line managers may be unsure about how to have sensitive employee wellbeing conversations with their staff, especially around issues such as alcohol consumption and mental health.  Line manager training is always important, but now even more so, so they feel capable and confident to manage and support employees.
  • In this dispersed and virtual work environment that many employees have found themselves in, it may be helpful for HR to remind employees about important policies and practices that would usually be upheld in the workplace, and provide further clarification if required.  If your organisation does not have a drugs and alcohol policy, it may be helpful for HR Managers and senior level staff to develop a policy (alongside Trade Unions if appropriate).
  • Remind staff about other support networks that are available – for example if your organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme – the start of this new lockdown may be an opportune moment to highlight the range of services that EAPs provide.  But there are also a range of other national charities providing wellbeing support that may be of use to employees.
  • Don’t forget your furloughed staff – it’s important that they are not seen as ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  Can some form of contact be maintained to understand how these members of staff are coping, ensuring that they also have access to support provided to all staff.
  • Although ‘work socials’ are now on Zoom, it may be helpful to think about what these are centred around, and that there isn’t a pressure for social aspects to feature alcohol. 
  • Does your organisation have an occupational health service available, where support for both the manager and the employee can be provided?  What other support processes or employee rehabilitation can you provide?  If time is required off work, do you have a sufficient return-to-work policy to ensure that adequate support is provided?

Most importantly, in this lockdown, staff need to know that they feel supported.  We are not just working through a lockdown, we are working through a pandemic which is seemingly ever more prevalent and scary.  Anxiety about our health, our work, our family is constant and although the vaccine does provide a glimmer of hope, it still seems like a long way off.  It is vital that employers can create an environment where employees can discuss their concerns, ask for help and feel confident that they will get it in a non-judgemental way.  Employers must ensure that work is not part of the problem, but can be a source of support for people experiencing difficulties.

Happy 13th month of 2020 everyone! 

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.