Beware the office party

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If there's one thing the festive season is guaranteed to bring to the workplace it is alcohol. The problem is that employees often get more than just a hangover. "Misconduct reaches its high point at the office Christmas party," says Trish Embley, an associate at the law firm Eversheds. "During the early months of each year, our caseload is dominated by employers who encourage staff to let their hair down, but then try to discipline them for Christmas party excesses such as fighting, sexual harassment and vandalism."

Despite the recent hype about drug use increasing within the workplace, alcohol abuse is shown to be far more prevalent throughout the year. A manual issued in May by Alcohol Concern and the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency, promoting drug and alcohol policies in the workplace, found that up to14.8 million working days are lost each year as a consequence of drinking. And 46 per cent of large companies report incidents of alcohol misuse in the workplace in comparison to 18 per cent reporting the misuse of drugs.

The consequences can be catastrophic for both employer and employee. Performance and productivity are affected. Work relationships become threatened. The risk of accidents increases. And if the drinking culminates into a dismissal, the costs of recruiting and training are high. So what is the solution? And if detrimental effects of alcohol abuse are just a one-off - as they often are at this time of year - should the employee be treated in the same way as those who show ongoing symptoms?

Mary-Ann McKibben, assistant director of Alcohol Concern, believes the answer is yes. "Sometimes one-off binges are indicative of a bigger problem and the employer should question that,'' she explains, adding that the focus of a successful alcohol policy should be to treat an employee's alcohol problem as a health and welfare issue rather than a disciplinary problem. Research by the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), reveals that 63 per cent of large companies now have a policy on the use of alcohol. Like Alcohol Concern, the IPD believes these should be of a caring nature, but the reality is that many remain severe. "Employers need to develop a climate of trust rather than of suspicion,'' insists Oonagh Ryden, a policy adviser.

The knowledge that they have access to support systems is shown to be a huge incentive for employees to overcome their problem, she continues. When London Underground introduced its carefully planned alcohol policy a few years ago, for instance, employees became aware that company procedures would treat the issue with confidence. "Previously employees didn't come forward and discuss their drinking as they worried that admitting to a problem would result in them being sacked,'' says Ms McKibben. "But as soon as a structure was provided, including the written commitment to help, staff came forward and helped themselves."

Policies should always include a process for employees to follow if colleagues or superiors appear to have a problem with alcohol. "In order to stop the risk of bullying or being branded a whistleblower, there has to be an established procedure for employees,'' explains Ms McKibben. Some companies maintain that it is too expensive to offer assistance to employees. But recruiting an agency to do this is a small investment. Alcohol Concern concludes "the alternative is that employers risk losing staff in one way or another''.

Drugs and Alcohol Policies by Tricia Jackson is published by IPD.