Support for alcohol and drug misuse needs to be part of a wellbeing offering

Over a quarter (27%) of people say their alcohol consumption has increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions. This is according to our hot-off-the-press CIPD survey looking at how working lives have changed during the pandemic.

Everyone’s lives have been affected by the pandemic in one way or another, with many people now working in ways they haven’t done before and facing new pressures in both their work and home lives. As a result, the way employers support employee wellbeing needs to change to reflect those pressures. Supporting employees who are at risk of alcohol or drug misuse should be a key part of this wellbeing offering, especially given the observed change in drinking habits.

Alcohol consumption amid lockdown restrictions

In our survey, we found three main pandemic-related risk factors associated with increased alcohol consumption:

  • Those reporting a high workload were significantly more likely to say their alcohol consumption had increased than those saying their workload was about right (31% versus 24%).
  • Those who had seen a change in their caring responsibilities were also more likely to say their alcohol consumption had increased than those who hadn’t (37% versus 25%).
  • Furthermore, those not attending their normal workplace were significantly more likely to say their alcohol consumption has increased than those who were (32% versus 23%).

Research by Drinkaware (2020) found a similar trend: one in four (26%) people working from home said they were drinking more and 12% said they had their first drink earlier in the day during lockdown. They warn that thousands of workers could emerge from lockdown with risky – or even dangerous – drinking habits, as once established these habits can be hard to break.

The need for heightened employer support will remain crucial as the current period of economic uncertainty continues. Latest CIPD/Adecco research has shown that redundancies are due to increase over coming months. And the UK being in a recession will throw up further challenges in our work and home lives.

Studies (e.g. Dávalos et al (2012); Nagelhout et al (2017)) have concluded that in an economic downturn people may engage in problematic drinking or drug use. They suggest people may self-medicate to cope with economic distress and drink more due to their current additional leisure time.

What should employers do?

Drug and alcohol misuse are already considerable issues within wider society. This means that they are also issues within the workplace, and are therefore health, safety and employee wellbeing concerns for employers. It’s important that employers have preventative and supportive measures in place, in addition to a clear policy on drug and alcohol misuse and any necessary disciplinary procedures.

Our survey found that 21% of employers currently do not provide any proactive support for employees related to drug and alcohol misuse. And only 33% provide information for employees on sources of support if they have an issue.

We strongly recommend employers don’t see alcohol and drug misuse as solely a disciplinary issue when an incident occurs. Of course, a clear policy and guidelines are needed. However, positioning drug and alcohol misuse support within a wellbeing offering can help to encourage those who need to get professional help to come forward and ask for it.

In addition, a focus on prevention and support as could prevent things getting that far, as well as being a valuable resource for those not facing an issue but wanting to make health-related lifestyle changes to combat changing drinking habits, benefitting both the organisation and the employee.

Here are some of the actions you may want to consider to support your staff.

Focus on prevention

  • Employers need to regularly assess wellbeing risk factors and ensure employees feel supported. Risk factors can include high workloads, a change in caring responsibilities, and not having the usual work routine (for example, working remotely). Examples of pro-active support could be to offer flexible working to help people manage caring responsibilities and managers regularly monitoring people’s workloads.
  • Make education available to employees about ‘good choices’ about alcohol consumption and drug misuse and being aware of and addressing the wellbeing risk factors – this could be via internal ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, articles on the intranet and links to professional sources of information.

Flag the support available

  • Promote early intervention by regularly reminding people of the support available to them if they are struggling.
  • Create an open culture where employees feel able to disclose problems and seek help before a concern becomes a real issue, knowing they will be supported, irrespective of any other action that needs to be taken.
  • Make sure people are aware of how and to who they can disclose an issue. We found that just 27% provide guidance for employees on how to disclose a problem with alcohol or drugs.

Train line managers to respond appropriately

  • Line managers are best placed to manage workloads, spot early warning signs of issues and signpost people to support. However, they need to have the training to feel confident and capable to do so effectively.
  • Line managers need to feel equipped to respond appropriately if someone says they are struggling and make them aware of the support available.
  • Managers shouldn’t try to solve an individual’s problem or provide help themselves; their role is to signpost someone to professional help and support.

Few employers currently train line managers about the organisation’s drug and alcohol policies and procedures (12% provide one-off training for line managers and 25% provide regular refresher training). That’s despite investment in line manager training being rated highly as an effective way of helping to prevent alcohol and drug misuse. For example, training to help line managers recognise the symptoms of drug and alcohol problems was rated as the most effective method to help prevent misuse, closely followed by improving management practice on how to manage and support employees in general.

Resources for people professionals and employers

We have produced a range of resources for employers and people professionals to help prevent and manage drug and alcohol misuse at work. These resources include:

  • A practical guide for employers, with a strong emphasis on taking preventative action and the importance of supporting employee wellbeing.
  • Guidance and training scenarios for line managers on their role in preventing and managing alcohol and drug misuse at work.

In difficult times it is more important than ever to ensure the support you provide is fit for purpose and to remind employees it’s available and how to access it.

You can download the full research report here.

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