It seems that every new study that comes out about alcohol use seems to contradict other studies — but that doesn't mean people shouldn't be aware of their drinking habits, especially the relationship between that and a person's job, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.
Newman sat down with The Early Edition host Rick Cluff to talk about how a person can tell if their job is influencing their drinking choices, and what they can do about it.
Rick Cluff: Does all this contrary health news mean the issue is not as serious as employers and employees are being led to believe?
Jennifer Newman: We do have a choice. We can wave the controversy away, as a "health-news flavour of the month" story. Or, we can pause and consider our own well-being in light of it. And, employers can examine the effects alcohol has on their employees and their organizations. It's important to remember the majority of adults with alcohol problems are employed.
Granted, but is it the business of employers to govern the drinking behaviour of their workers?
Employers are responsible for the health and safety of workers on the job. They are charged with eliminating and minimizing safety risks with the potential to harm workers. Problematic alcohol use can do harm. It's related to increases in accidents and higher workplace aggression and violence.
It makes sense employers would want to prevent workers from working under the influence, but what employees do on their days off, is on their time...
That's what makes this a wellness issue. One in which both employers and employees have a stake. The health risks are many when workers overuse alcohol. This includes higher risks of dementia, breast cancer in women, liver and colon cancer, and also depressed immune systems.
Besides accidents, heavy drinkers have higher tardiness and absenteeism rates. Productivity declines, as does creativity and the ability to make good decisions. It can affect workplace morale, as staff may resent picking up the slack for heavy drinking colleagues.
This seems to apply to workers who are heavy drinkers ... what about the average person who has a drink or two to unwind after work?
That's where the opportunity for worker introspection comes in. It's a chance to look at how, when and why workers drink. Alcohol is used to de-stress. It's used as a reward. It's used to socialize and make socializing easier. It's used to deal with both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Awareness is key here.
For example, when you are on the way home from work today, and your mind wanders to the big glass of wine, or beer, or a scotch waiting for you at home. Maybe think about what's going on that makes having those drinks so important? Work can be a factor in alcohol use.
Demands at work, feeling no control on the pressures placed on you, being bored with repetitive work, having no way to advance, or being supervised by ineffective or abusive managers can factor into decisions to drink.
Is it fair to blame our workplaces for that though? I'm sure lots of people are supervised by ineffective managers and choose not to drink...
A lot of the time alcohol is used to help workers get by. You can imagine doing your boring job, if you get a reward at the end of the shift. What's important is being aware of how your job may be affecting the choices you make. If it's true alcohol is unhealthy, even moderate usage, then using it as a way to make it through a day, may be a good thing to question. Plus, work isn't the only factor in the decision to drink. Emotions play a role. Loneliness is big.
For example, there was a teacher who had a couple of glasses of wine in the evening. He had recently divorced. He drank when he felt lonely. Feeling exhausted influences some to reach for a drink. Alcohol can temporarily douse hopelessness. Dull feelings of worry or inadequacy.
It's not easy. But, checking into how you feel when you want that drink, makes you aware of what's motivating you at the moment.
If workers do notice these reasons to drink, what should they do?
Take some time to think about what you want to do with this awareness? Maybe there are some life or work changes that need to happen. For example I worked with a progressively heavy drinker who had moved up in his organization. He decided to take a look at what he was doing to himself.
He noticed he hadn't been happy with his career for a while. And, he was also ashamed of his drinking.
He decided to make some serious life and habit changes. You may want to talk it over with your family, or a friend. Or, get some help through your employee assistance or extended benefits programs at work. Maybe you decide to cut back or stop. Or, ignore it for now.
There are a lot of options. I would recommend continuing to monitor how, when and why you drink.
What can employers do if they are aware this may be an issue in their workplace?
Examine whether your workplace culture encourages alcohol use or tolerates hangovers. Educate employees and supervisors on a regular basis about alcohol. Create health promotion programs:
Exercise programs are helpful, as are programs that focus on health issues like weight gain, heart health and reducing high blood pressure.
In the case of problem drinking, remember alcohol-use disorder is a disability and if you suspect an employee may have a problem, assist them in getting help.
This interview has been edited and condensed
To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman says people need to be aware of how their job may affect drinking habits