More people than ever are taking up the challenge to give up drinking for the whole of January. As many as 1 in 6 of the adult population in the UK attempted to quit alcohol for January last year and more were expected to stop this year according to Alcohol Concern which promotes the Dry January campaign.
Alcohol is a problem for many people in the UK and the issues associated with excessive drinking can easily spill over into the workplace. The Health and Safety Executive estimates that drinking is responsible for between 3-5 percent of all cases of sickness absence in the UK. Whilst that figure may seem small, it accounts for 8-14 million lost working days each year. Add to that the productivity lost by workers nursing hangovers and the total cost of drinking to UK businesses reaches £7.1bn.
In a survey of managers of large businesses, 90 percent said drinking was a problem in their company. Most reported that it was a minor problem, but 17 per cent said it was a major issue. And the problems resulting from workers drinking before or during working hours included:
- poor performance;
- lost productivity;
- absenteeism or lateness;
- safety concerns, particularly around machinery;
- poor impact on team morale, particularly where colleagues are having to cover for a person’s poor performance;
- bad behaviour and discipline;
- negative impact on customer relations.
The UK Chief Medical Officer’s guideline for the recommended safe weekly alcohol units was changed in 2016 to 14 units for both men and women (spread over the week with two or three alcohol-free days). That amounts to six pints of lager or six average sized glasses of wine. But an estimated 9 million people in the UK drink more than these limits and in 2014 some 8,697 people suffered an alcohol-related death.
The benefits of taking a break from drinking (in January or any other month)
Taking a month off alcohol can have immediate benefits and can even turn out to be fun.
- Improved health. This has got to be the biggest reason for taking a month off from drinking. At Christmas it is easy to drink more than you would normally choose to and many people drink every day, or more than they would normally drink in one sitting. The recommended weekly limits are quickly met and exceeded. Health experts believe a month off drinking can:
- reduce blood sugar levels
- lower blood pressure
- improve concentration
- help the liver recover.
- Better sleep. Drinking before bedtime can disturb normal sleep patterns and leave you waking up feeling exhausted. You may also need to get up in the night to go to the toilet, and alcohol can make you snore more loudly.
- Clearer skin. Alcohol is a diuretic which dehydrates the body and can dry out the skin.
- Weight loss. There are seven calories in a gram of alcohol, and one glass of wine or pint of lager has the same calories as a doughnut. Cutting down on alcohol will reduce your calorie intake and help you lose weight.
- Better cash flow. Drinking is expensive and cutting down will save you money. This can be particularly useful in the month after Christmas.
- Reduced drinking in the future. Having taken a break from drinking, many people find that they continue to drink less for a while afterwards rather than going straight back to drinking at former levels.
The way we drink and eat are habitual so any attempt at drinking less will involve changing habits as well as attitudes to drinking.
Tips for a successful break from drinking
- Avoid bars. Try to avoid bars and subsequent temptation and look for alternative ways to get together with friends, such as fitness activities, dance classes, or trips to the cinema, theatre or museums.
- Non-alcoholic drinks. If you can’t avoid the bar, plan ahead and decide what you’ll drink instead of your usual tipple. Try tonic without the gin, or embrace your health kick by drinking something really healthy like sparkling water with fresh lemon and lime.
- Encourage friends and colleagues to join you. One of the problems with Dry January is that everyone else still seems to be drinking around you. Encourage your partner to join you so you are not faced with the temptation at home, or get your colleagues to join you so you can talk about your progress at work.
- Save for a treat. Think about how much money you are saving and put it aside in order to treat yourself at the end of the month.
How employers can help
Employers do have a role in supporting and encouraging their staff to pursue a healthy lifestyle and could be proactive in supporting staff through their alcohol-free times. And taking steps to minimise stress in the workplace could help reduce people’s perceived ‘need’ for a drink, such as:
- reviewing deadlines;
- creating an ‘open doors’ culture making it easy for workers to approach their managers to discuss issues;
- creating an environment in which workers feel able to take their lunch breaks and leave on time.
In the longer term, the Institute of Alcohol Studies recommends that all companies have a policy towards alcohol in the workplace and should be careful to record and monitor staff sickness in order to identify trends and support staff.
Fit for Work offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).