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Alcohol Awareness Week 2024: Understanding alcohol harm

Alcohol Awareness Week 2024 runs from 1st – 7th July 2024. This year’s theme is “Understanding alcohol harm”, aimed at shedding light on what ‘alcohol harm’ is, challenging stereotypes that alcohol is an individual’s problem, and talking about the multifaceted impacts of alcohol consumption on our families, communities, and workplaces.

The harm of alcohol

Alcohol harms our health and wellbeing daily. The recommendation is that adults consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week (equivalent to six pints of normal-strength lager or a bottle and a half of wine). The expectation is that this is spread evenly over three days or more. However, research from Alcohol Change UK indicates that 21% of UK adults regularly drink more than this. 

Alcohol consumption can result in severe health consequences. Both the heart and brain require oxygen for optimal functioning, but excessive alcohol consumption can accelerate the accumulation of fatty materials in both the heart muscle and the brain. For those who drink more than is recommended, there are significant health risks including high blood pressure, hepatitis (inflammation of the liver), cirrhosis, psychological illnesses including depression and anxiety, and muscle and heart disease. They are also at a greater risk of developing alcohol dependence, damage to the nerve tissue, and of course an increased chance of accidents.

In 2022, there were 10,048 deaths from alcohol-specific causes in the UK – the highest number on record, and 32.8% higher than in 2019 – highlighting the scale of the problem.

In addition to the physical health implications, alcohol consumption also impacts our quality of sleep, our wallets, and our relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.

Alcohol abuse and the workplace

Alcohol abuse doesn’t just harm the individual; it also affects the workplace and work performance. Chronic drinking can result in absenteeism, decreased productivity, and increased healthcare costs for employers. The Institute of Alcohol Studies reports that alcohol misuse costs the UK economy over £7 billion annually in lost productivity. Employees may turn up to work hungover or still intoxicated from the night before. Likewise, some may consume alcohol before or during the workday which can impede concentration, reaction times, and decision-making.

Workplaces may not only feel the consequences of alcohol but in some instances, they can be part of the problem. Alcohol can become a coping mechanism for increased levels of stress, with 27% of people saying that workplace stress causes them to drink more.

Employees struggling with alcohol dependency may face disciplinary actions due to poor performance, frequent absenteeism, or inappropriate behavior. This can create a disruptive work environment, lower team morale, and lead to higher turnover rates. Employers must be proactive in addressing these issues by providing support, such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), and fostering an open dialogue about alcohol use and its consequences. Employers, through the support of occupational health, can also support with workplace drug and alcohol testing for employees, particularly in high risk roles.

Going sober

Interestingly, there has also been a significant rise in the popularity of non-alcoholic beverages and the sober movement. Research has revealed that amongst UK adults (excluding non-drinkers), 30% of men and 26% of women would like to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink in 2024.

Many people are choosing to cut back on alcohol, eliminate it completely, or swap to low-alcohol/no-alcohol options for a plethora of benefits including physical health reasons, improvements to mental health, better sleep, more energy, improved skin, as well as financial gains.

Sales of no- and low-alcohol beers were up 25% in June compared to the start of the year (2023) according to Tesco, while 85% of UK pubs are now offering at least one low/no-alcohol beer alongside their usual ranges. This positive shift offers alternatives to those who wish to enjoy social occasions without the adverse effects of alcohol. Employers can support this movement by offering non-alcoholic options at company events and promoting a culture of moderation.

Sober shaming

Despite the growing acceptance of sobriety, “sober shaming” remains an issue. This refers to the social stigma and pressure people may face when choosing not to drink – whether it be for a night, a month, or permanently. A survey by Alcohol Change UK found that 20% of people who had cut down on alcohol experienced negative reactions from others.

In a workplace setting, this can be particularly challenging. Many workplace cultures encourage drinking, often inadvertently. For example, informal socialising is held in locations, such as the local pub or bar after work, where drinking is the primary activity; or organisation’s host social events where alcohol is often made available for free.

Employers must create an inclusive environment where employees feel comfortable making personal choices about alcohol. This can be achieved through awareness campaigns, promoting respect for individual decisions, and setting clear expectations about behavior at work-related social events.

Conclusion

Alcohol Awareness Week 2024 is an opportunity for employers and employees to understand the impacts of alcohol harm more deeply. By fostering an environment that supports healthy choices, addressing alcohol abuse openly, and respecting individual decisions, workplaces can improve overall health and wellbeing. Let us use this week to commit to a more informed and supportive approach to alcohol in our professional and personal lives.

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