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Remote Working – A Ticking Time Bomb for Addiction
The Royal College of Physicians recently reported that around 8 million people in the UK have been drinking up to 50 units a week since the start of the pandemic in January 2020. Occupational Health specialist Dr Mike McCann, a Director at Castle Craig Hospital highlights concern at the increased danger from alcohol as remote working becomes routine.
Both employers and employees are at risk from negative consequences of remote working because those who struggle with alcohol have more opportunities to drink when working at home and are also less likely to be detected. – Dr Mike McCann
Flexi-working Arrangements & Alcohol Consumption
Since the start of the pandemic, alcohol has been finding new ways of creeping into our everyday lives. Nowadays, at-home drinking sessions last longer than a night in the pub.
Remote working became popular as an emergency measure for employees to continue working during lockdown but it’s now a common practice that many companies have made a permanent feature of their company culture and working procedures.
Many companies with offices in the City or other financial districts and city centres are now questioning the need and expense for a central office, open five days a week with a desk or office for every employee.
Bosses are commonly accepting and exploring the option of flexible working with workers coming in two days a week and hot desking with other workers on alternate days. This was almost unthinkable two years ago.
Drinking During Office Hours
Working life has never been more flexible. However, there can be downsides to such flexibility, such as turning to alcohol while working from home.
“Working from home may facilitate alcohol use that would not otherwise happen” (Addictive Behaviour Report, December 2021, National Library of Medicine, USA.)
For most people, alcohol is much more readily available in their own houses than at their workplaces, so this is hardly surprising. Let’s explore some of the issues that can arise when a team is working remotely and how they can lead people to respond inappropriately.
What Problems Arise During the Day when Working at Home?
There will always be problems in any workplace (and benefits too for that matter). However, some issues assume a greater intensity when a person is working from home:
- Isolation and loneliness: simply being alone can affect a person’s morale, self-esteem and sense of reality. When there is no colleague on hand to share a problem or question an opinion this can lead to a build-up of anxiety, fear or even anger as feelings go unchecked and unvalidated.
- Work-related stress: if you have any kind of job, stress is perhaps inevitable because work implies some degree of pressure and responsibility. Most people learn to handle stress by trial and error – usually through interaction with others. They learn to identify danger signs, in colleagues and in events and they create responses that work for them individually – sharing burdens, facing problems openly and honestly and having a friendly listener for one’s woes, for example. Others, of course, turn to alcohol or pills to cope.
- Domestic stress: for some of these recent ‘home-workers’ their domestic problems which previously remained safely behind their front doors as they left for work in the morning, now surround them 24/7.
- Lack of structure and accountability: structure in the workplace is not just to enable management to make things happen – it helps employees to understand their functions and purpose and gives a sense of security because they know who to turn to for backup and reassurance. Most people view their home as a physical comfort zone where they are less likely to be held accountable for actions and this can have negative effects around drinking. Research has shown that hangovers can deter people from undertaking difficult jobs and that fear of a hangover can (sometimes) deter a person from drinking altogether. Thus, John may not drink at all this evening because he fears people will see his bloodshot eyes and smell his breath at tomorrow’s breakfast meeting in the office. However, John may drink heavily and ‘get away with it’ if he knows tomorrow’s meeting will be conducted on Zoom while he stays at home.
- Convenience: not everyone drinks alcohol simply because it is there, but various studies have found that heavy drinking tends to increase when alcohol is readily available. There is a common assumption that alcohol and work of any kind do not go well together and therefore should not happen, but when home becomes the workplace this assumption becomes less certain, at least in the subconscious mind. If someone who is already struggling with a drinking problem starts a work pattern based on working from home, then a number of their difficulties around punctuality, competence, appearance and overall reliability may become easier to hide and therefore to an extent,, easier to manage. This may have negative consequences for the business.
From Alcohol Misuse to Alcoholism
For many people, alcohol begins as a coping mechanism that they may recognise as unhealthy but nevertheless can manage effectively most of the time. They can do this partly because they are constricted by powerful considerations that they prioritise (give or take a few lapses and mistakes). Thus, a person’s need for employment, or love of their family or simply fear of criticism from others may lead them to restrict their intake at certain times and binge at other times.
Again, there may be places such as in an office or factory where people simply do not have access to alcohol. But alcoholism is a progressive disease and this progression – from bad to worse – may well be hastened by outside factors such as a decision to work from home. A heavy drinker may at first welcome this as a way of indulging their habit with minimal interference but for the very same reason, their intake will most likely increase, and the inevitable crisis be hastened.
How Can Drinking Behaviour Be Detected and Measured by Management?
Detecting if an employee who is working from home has a drinking problem can be challenging, as it requires sensitivity and respect for a person’s privacy. Morale can gradually erode the mental state of an isolated employee and this on its own would be difficult for the manager to identify. The situation should be approached with empathy and a genuine desire to support.
Here are some signs of possible trouble that a manager can consider:
- Performance and behaviour changes: unexpected events such as frequent missed deadlines, reduced productivity, increased errors, or sudden shifts in demeanour (such as mood swings) may be indicative of a problem.
- Communication: pay attention to any signs of distress or personal issues that they might mention. Maintain open and regular communication with the employee. Ask about their workload, challenges, and well-being during virtual meetings or check-ins.
- Attendance and punctuality: consistent lateness for virtual meetings or regular absences without a clear explanation.
- Avoidance: if the employee becomes increasingly isolated, avoids video calls, or is consistently unresponsive, this might signal an issue.
- Physical signs: during video meetings, take note of any physical signs of alcohol use, such as slurred speech, sweats and tremors, or erratic behaviour.
- Inconsistency of work hours: unarranged changes in work times, such as starting work late in the day or working late into the night, maybe an indicator.
- Request for time off: frequent and unexplained requests for time off or sick days could be related to alcohol-related issues.
Remember that making assumptions about an employee’s personal issues can be harmful and should always be backed up by clear examples. Consider offering resources for help if needed.
What Can a Manager or HR Do When They Suspect a Remote Worker Has a Drinking Problem?
When a manager or HR professional suspects that a remote worker may have a drinking problem, it’s essential to approach the situation with sensitivity, empathy, and a focus on supporting the employee’s well-being. Here are some obvious steps that can be taken:
- Gather information: before taking any action, ensure that you have actual observations that raise legitimate concerns about the employee’s performance or well-being. Be mindful of respecting the individual’s privacy.
- Consult HR policies and procedures: review your company’s policies and procedures related to addressing substance abuse issues. These can provide guidance on the appropriate steps to take and any available resources. Follow these policies carefully – this may mean involving HR or higher management.
- Initiate a private conversation: reach out to the employee for a private and confidential conversation. Express your concerns in a non-confrontational and supportive manner. Focus on their well-being rather than making accusations. Use “I” statements to convey your observations and feelings, such as “I have noticed some changes in your work and wanted to check in.”
- Listen actively: allow the employee to share their perspective and feelings. It’s important to be a good listener and show understanding, rather than judgmental or accusatory language.
- Offer support: let the employee know that your primary concern is their health and well-being. Mention any available resources within the company, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), counselling services, or medical leave options. Emphasise that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- Document the conversation: keep a record of the conversation, including any agreements or action steps discussed. Document any observable performance issues and the impact on their work.
- Respect confidentiality: ensure that the conversation is confidential to the extent allowed by company policy and applicable laws (such as Health and Safety). Avoid sharing this information with colleagues unless necessary for workplace safety or compliance reasons.
- Monitor progress: if the employee agrees to seek help or make improvements, continue to monitor their progress and offer support as needed. Be patient and understanding during this process.
- Seek legal advice if necessary: there may be special legal considerations around say Disability or Health and Safety. Consult with your legal department or legal counsel if needed, especially if you think that a person may be breaking the law by their drinking behaviour.
- Substance abuse is a complex issue with a variety of underlying causes and often unforeseen consequences too. The provision of support and understanding can make a significant difference in a person’s recovery process.
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Possible Negative Consequences for Employers Due to Employee Alcohol Abuse while Working at Home
Alcohol abuse by employees can have broader implications for employers whether they are a profit-making business or a profession such as a school, including client dissatisfaction and unnecessary costs. An organisation may well have an established policy on alcohol and drug misuse at work, but this could become unmanageable when dealing with home working. Without the discipline of daily attendance at work and without supervision, already vulnerable employees may move from problem drinking to alcohol dependence. For management to identify any significant changes may at the same time become more challenging and a full review of the situation is required.
Here are some areas of concern:
- Employees who abuse alcohol may interact with clients or customers inappropriately, leading to poor relations and complaints.
- Mistakes or delays resulting from impaired judgment can negatively affect client satisfaction, potentially causing them to seek alternatives.
- Public knowledge or perception of alcohol-related issues within the organisation can damage its reputation and ranking.
Loss of Contracts or Deals:
- Poor timekeeping such as missed meetings or poor performance, can lead to the loss of important contracts, or other opportunities.
- Reduced employee productivity due to alcohol abuse can lead to lower revenue generation.
- Costs associated with addressing alcohol abuse, such as providing counselling or rehabilitation services, can affect finances.
Impact on Innovation and Creativity:
- Alcohol abuse can hinder employees’ ability to think creatively and compete, potentially affecting the organisation’s viability.
To mitigate these risks and protect profitability, employers should not only address individual cases of alcohol abuse but also foster a healthy work culture that discourages such behaviour. This includes implementing clear and adaptable work policies, promoting employee well-being, and providing resources for those who may need help with substance abuse issues. Creating a supportive work environment can go a long way in preserving customer relationships and maintaining profitability.
How Should an Employer Address the Question of Drinking Alcohol when the Home Is Also the Workplace?
Since the start of the pandemic, employers have had to change and adapt their procedures and employment documentation in many ways. It is indeed essential that all organisations should address these changes. Without going into great detail at this time, the key points for an employer dealing with the challenges of remote working from home in the context of substance abuse and addiction must include:
- A full risk assessment to evaluate potential dangers associated with employees abusing alcohol while working from home. The scope of this would be to identify the risk factors, assess their impact and develop strategies to address them.
- A review of the organisation’s policies to do with working practices in general including contracts of employment, to be updated to cover remote working procedures.
- A full review of the Alcohol and Drug Misuse Policy for the organisation, to be updated as necessary to encompass home working including a code of conduct specifically relating to how employees should (or should not) use alcohol while working. This will need to formalise working practices and discourage working while drinking. Part of the induction programme for new employees should include the code of conduct – what is acceptable and what is not.
- A review of legal and ethical issues: depending on the circumstances, employers may face liability issues related to alcohol-related incidents that occur during work hours or as a result of work-related activities at home. They should consider legal and ethical factors, including compliance with employment laws and regulations regarding substance abuse and employee rights and privacy.
- A full review of the organisation’s Employee Assistance Programme with due consideration given to updating for substance abuse as needed.
These programmes often provide resources and support for employees dealing with personal issues, including substance abuse.
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