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WORK LIFE - ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

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Many councils have adopted policies in relation to alcohol abuse by staff. The purpose is usually to help staff wit...
Many councils have adopted policies in relation to alcohol abuse by staff. The purpose is usually to help staff with an alcohol problem overcome their difficulties, rather than apply sanctions against them - at least in the early stages of the procedure.

The importance of the issue has been underlined recently by an interim analytical report published last month by the prime minister's strategy unit as part of its work to produce an alcohol harm-reduction strategy for England. One of the aims of the publication is to try and put a figure on the cost to employers of alcohol abuse.

The report says that, perhaps not surprisingly, it is highly unlikely that workers will report hangovers or the use of alcohol as a reason for being absent from work. So gathering direct and unequivocal information on the relationship between alcohol misuse and absenteeism is difficult, but data is available from a number of sources and studies. Although the magnitude of the results differs from study to study, all point in the same direction, that alcohol misuse significantly increases the average number of days of sickness absence.

The research says that estimating costs due to absenteeism may be achieved by calculating the number of working days lost due to alcohol misuse and valuing them using the average costs of a member of staff, after taking into account employers' costs such as national insurance and pension contributions.

It was found that in 2001 nearly 11 million working days were lost in England among alcohol-dependent staff due to alcohol misuse. As a result, the total cost of absenteeism due to long-term alcohol misuse in England is estimated to be in the region of £1.2bn. Given that about 8% of the total workforce in England works for local government, and assuming that local government workers drink as much as any others, the annual cost to councils of alcohol abuse could be just under £100m.

The strategy unit has calculated an even higher estimate on the basis that sickness absence due to alcohol misuse also occurs among non-dependent drinkers because of hangovers or other temporary alcohol-related short ailments. According to the research, those with an alcohol-dependency problem and those suffering from the occasional hangover took between them over 17 million days off sick in 2001 due to alcohol, at a cost of £1.8bn. Using the 8% figure mentioned above, this represents a cost to local government of about £145m per year.

If these estimates are right, the economic loss to employers on grounds of heavy drinking is frightening. They make the need for effective alcohol policies even more pressing.

Tim Rothwell

Director, HR Consulting, Tribal GWT

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