Four ways to help employees change their relationship with alcohol

Doctor discusses how to create a workplace culture that supports employees who want to reduce intake

Four ways to help employees change their relationship with alcohol
Dr. Terri-Lynn Mackay, mental health director, ALAViDA, a LifeSpeak Inc. company

As invaluable as flexibility has become for remote and hybrid workers, the lack of in-person social contact and the heightened proximity to substance use during the workday have contributed to concerning increases in the use of a variety of substances, particularly alcohol. While rates of alcohol and substance use increased during the pandemic, adults aged 35-50 reported the highest rate of alcohol use ever for this age group. Meanwhile, data shows that sustained remote work contributes to alcohol use disorders by putting employees in close proximity to alcohol all day. These trends are requiring HR professionals to consider substance use support, in particular, alcohol use, as part of their comprehensive workplace wellbeing strategies.

For benefits professionals, it’s important to understand that one’s relationship with alcohol is not an “all or nothing” proposition for employees. Instead, it exists on a spectrum from people who do not drink to those who have a diagnosable disorder. However, because many of us often only think about the individuals who have a diagnosed condition – those whose alcohol use has become disruptive emotionally, socially, and behaviourally – the millions of people who use alcohol daily and want to cut back, go unnoticed.

The business case for supporting employees with substance use challenges

While the three-martini lunch may no longer be common practice, alcohol is still present in today’s workplace. From champagne toasts over a big sale or business transaction to happy hours or cocktail parties with important business partners to the cash bar at industry conferences, it is rarely considered questionable to serve alcohol at a business event. But how does this affect business performance and what toll does it take on your workplace culture?

  • Any amount of alcohol use can have a negative impact on the health of your employees. In fact, alcohol use has been linked to cancer, heart disease, brain function, liver and kidney disease, and much more. The potential harm related to alcohol is so strong that health guidelines indicate risk starts to increase at two units per week for both men and women. 
  • Alcohol use is responsible for 15,000 preventable deaths in Canada each year.
  • Alcohol is the most societally costly substance in Canada, contributing $5.4 billion in health care costs each year.
  • Alcohol use is estimated to be responsible for nearly $40 billion in health care costs, criminal justice costs, and lost productivity each year in Canada.

Four ways to help employees change their relationship with alcohol

It’s estimated that 2.3 billion people in the world drink alcohol, while 18 percent of Canadians over the age of 15 will meet the criteria for a diagnosed Alcohol Use Disorder in their lifetime. Employers and benefits professionals should heed this data and be empowered to support employees on their journey toward wellbeing by educating them about the needs and challenges associated with alcohol use. Here are four things employers can do to prevent the misuse of alcohol by employees and to support those employees with a diagnosable Alcohol Use Disorder:

  1. Offer benefits that support education and prevention, as well as recovery. Currently, in order for insurance to pay for services, an employee’s alcohol use has to reach a high level of severity before they qualify for disability management or alcohol addiction treatment. Look for solutions that can be easily integrated into your benefits program and that will support employees across the alcohol-use spectrum. For example, on-demand, virtual resources and education about alcohol and substance use are an effective way to deliver confidential support for alcohol and substance use. At ALAViDA, a product of LifeSpeak Inc., our outcomes show that 80 percent of people who use these resources are successful in reducing or stopping their alcohol or substance use, with an average reduction of two drinks per day.   
  2. Create an accepting, alcohol-free workplace culture. Help employees understand that reducing or removing alcohol from their lives does not have to mean avoiding social situations. Strive to create an environment and work events where employees don’t feel like they are obligated to drink, or that makes them anxious about jeopardizing their sobriety. It’s important for HR leaders and employers to recognize that there is a growing population of sober-curious or sober-sometimes employees who want to change their relationship with alcohol and reduce their intake. Rather than hosting an open bar at work functions, consider serving a limited selection of low-alcohol drinks or alcohol-free drinks that have become popular due to the sober-curious movement. While these drinks can be triggers for some people who have given up alcohol, they can also be a positive reward for others.
  3. Create self-awareness and understanding for what the spectrum of alcohol use looks like. An important aspect of managing alcohol use is understanding that it exists on a spectrum. Through education and open dialogue, HR teams can help employees see themselves and their coworkers in the spectrum of alcohol use; whether they are the mom who drinks a bottle of wine with girlfriends on the weekend to destress over her hectic life or the young employee who hits up happy hour after work three days a week. Becoming self-aware of their own alcohol use can help employees manage their relationship with substances, while potentially identifying challenges among family members, such as children who may be sneaking alcohol or binge drinking on the weekends with friends.
  4. Focus on prevention and harm reduction. Help employees understand how alcohol use can impact their health by sharing the latest research findings in small, understandable bites, along with information about lifestyle risks and associated problems. For example, it may surprise employees to learn that not only is alcohol associated with several chronic and life-threatening conditions, but it is a known level-one carcinogen like tobacco and asbestos. Couple this type of content with hands-on support to help employees understand and change their health behaviours – no matter where they are in their readiness to change.

For centuries, alcohol use has been an acceptable social norm. However, the world is gaining a better understanding of the health effects related to alcohol use, and HR teams need to factor this into their wellbeing initiatives. By educating employees about available resources and benefits and supporting employees who want to move toward abstinence and harm reduction, HR teams can drive significant improvements in employee wellbeing and corporate performance.

Dr. Terri-Lynn Mackay is the mental health director of ALAViDA, a LifeSpeak Inc. company. She leads a care team that provides members with compassionate, non-judgmental, evidence-based care. Previously, Dr. Mackay served as the director of operations for the Canadian mental health pandemic response, as the associate director of counselling services at the University of British Columbia, as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the provincial director of innovation and partnerships for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Dr. Mackay holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology and a Masters degree in Behavioural Neuroscience.