COVID consumption: Australians are drinking more alcohol during COVID-19 and it’s having serious impacts on our work
It’s Sunday night. It’s been a nice weekend, as much as it can be during a pandemic. So, it feels appropriate to round it off with a few drinks, right? A nice bottle of wine or the best part of a six-pack goes down a treat while you watch a late movie. Then, it’s Monday. You feel a bit blurry, but not bad enough to call in sick, especially not if you’re working from home. Maybe you take a couple of Panadol and have an extra shot in your coffee. You stand in the hot shower for a long time, hoping it’ll wake you up. When you eventually rally yourself and start work, it’s hard to concentrate, and you’re running more like a rusty old lawnmower than a finely-tuned machine. Little things irritate you and you keep missing the mark in what you’re doing, just by a fraction. The work piles up while you go back and fix your mistakes. Your colleagues try to pick up the slack, but they’re not happy about it. The afternoon drags and you feel low. The kids are shouting at each other in the lounge room and you’re getting texts from stressed family and friends. By the time work finishes, you’ve well and truly had enough, so you decide to treat yourself to a few drinks to wind down. And so, it starts again.
Australian drinking culture
In Australia, we’ve got an attitude towards alcohol that normalises drinking substantial volumes and managing the effects of our alcohol consumption, often on a daily basis. Most of us are aware of the negative mental and physical health impacts of increased alcohol consumption, as well as the toll it can take on our relationships, families and communities. But, it also has some pretty serious impacts on our work, especially during the current pandemic.
Australians are drinking more during COVID-19
Alcohol abuse and misuse is estimated to cost the Australian economy $6 billion annually. This cost includes absenteeism and lost productivity. And, during COVID-19, our drinking as a nation has well and truly ramped up. A May survey conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) found that almost 20% of people were drinking more alcohol while under lockdown than they usually did. On the surface, it seems understandable. Many of us are dealing with big changes on the work front that coronavirus has brought with it: sudden WFH arrangements; balancing home-schooling and childcare responsibilities; no work, less work or extra work; not to mention the threat of the illness itself and the community anxiety around contagion and containment. There’s economic uncertainty and job insecurity, and those of us who have managed to stay in our jobs certainly don’t want to be underperforming now. But those few extra drinks might make it inevitable.
So, how does our alcohol consumption affect our work?
Well, alcohol is a depressant. Because it slows down the messages sent between our bodies and brains, it can impair judgement, focus, reaction times and coordination. It’s harder to solve problems and overcome obstacles when you’ve been drinking. This affects productivity and the speed, competence, accuracy and efficiency with which we perform work tasks. Over time, increased alcohol intake can also have negative consequences for our executive functioning. Then, there’s the safety issues. ‘Workers operating under the influence of alcohol are at increased risk of experiencing work injuries, accidents and other safety incidents,’ says Paul Molinia, Recovery Partners’ General Manager of Rehabilitation services in NSW and ACT. ‘They may also have performance-related interpersonal conflicts with co-workers or supervisors and be more inclined to act impulsively or without inhibitions.’ The list goes on. What’s more, the effects of alcohol on work performance can also present when an employee’s not drinking during work hours at all.
Drinking beyond the job
In the scenario we described at the beginning of this article, a worker drinks alcohol the night before work. The next day, they experience a hangover: the effects of a high concentration of alcohol remaining in their bloodstream. These effects include irritability, difficulty concentrating, fatigue and feelings of depression and anxiety. In some cases, a worker may not be well enough to attend work, which also comes at a significant economic cost. So, even when alcohol consumption is outside of work hours, the impacts are not confined to leisure time. This overlap is amplified during COVID-19, when the lines between home and work are muddied anyway. The office is also the lounge room, so workers can skip the commute and get straight into Happy Hour. Time feels a bit more fluid, and there’s less to cram into it, so whiling away a few hours down the bottle might not seem like such a big deal. In short, COVID-19 has made Australian workers want to increase their alcohol consumption and also afforded them new opportunities for doing so.
So, what can we do about this situation?
‘It’s important for employers to have empathy for employees who have found themselves experiencing increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic,’ says Paul Molinia. ‘These workers may need support to address their difficulties from professional psychologists or other allied health professionals. If you don’t already have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in place to facilitate this support, I’d strongly encourage you to consider this as a first step.’ It’s also vital that employers make sure they’re providing opportunities for drug and alcohol education in their work environments, so workers understand the ramifications of their choices, Paul suggests. ‘While employers can’t mandate the actions of their employees outside of work hours, they can have guidelines around their fitness for work, and these are best communicated through a Prohibited Substances Policy or Drug and Alcohol Policy.’
The most effective strategy for helping employees mitigate or limit the effects of their alcohol consumption on both their health and their work is implementing a workplace wellness program, says Paul. ‘The idea of an employee wellness program is that it’s proactive rather than reactive. It encourages and facilitates employees to maintain good health all the time, rather than just dealing with the effects of ill health.’ Ideally, a workplace wellness program should include measures to promote good health physically and psychologically, Paul says, and incorporate training that teaches participants to recognise and manage stress without using alcohol or drugs. ‘ When employees are given assistance and encouragement to make healthier lifestyle choices, both they and their employers benefit,’ says Paul. ‘And, when crises like COVID-19 occur, the framework is already in place for giving people the support they need to cope with elevated stress.’
If you’re from a business and you’re interested in helping your employees safeguard their mental and physical health in COVID-19 and beyond, get in touch with Recovery Partners.
Our consultants love to have a chat, so go ahead and give us a call on 1300 OHS RTW (647 789) or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Get help as an individual
Beyond Blue’s dedicated COVID-19 Mental Wellbeing Support Service, funded by the Australian Government, is a free 24-hour helpline (1800 512 348), available to support all people in Australia to manage the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their mental health and wellbeing.
Disclaimer – these articles are provided to supply general safety information to people responsible for OHS in their organisation. They are general in nature and do not substitute for legal and/or professional advice. We always suggest that organisations obtain information specific to their needs. Additional information can be found at https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/
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