Stories about alcohol are likely to be surfing the airwaves and news pages in coming weeks, thanks to the launch of new NHMRC guidelines on drinking, scheduled to take place this Friday.
No doubt the role of the individual drinker will be much emphasised; there is a natural tendency to portray such issues as being all about individual choice.
I hope there will also be room to consider the impact of alcohol more broadly. One area often overlooked is the role of workplaces — both in terms of the harms associated with excessive consumption, and as ideal venues for providing solutions to some of Australia’s grog problems.
I’ve been involved in research suggesting that the high level of hazardous drinking among workers is compromising workplace safety and productivity. It clearly implicates excessive consumption in high rates of absenteeism, in particular.
But it’s not the small group of consistently heavy drinkers who cause most of the harm (as many people might instinctively assume) — but the much larger group of workers who occasionally have a big night.
Both workers and employers could benefit if workplaces were more effectively engaged in efforts to tackle hazardous drinking. They are an ideal site for interventions because workplace cultures can have a huge impact on people’s drinking.
If employers were as enthusiastic about addressing alcohol-related problems in their workforce as they are about tackling illicit drug use, they could do a lot for their bottom line, as well as for their employees’ health.
I’m not suggesting this be done in a punitive way. What’s needed are consistent workplace policies which promote awareness about the effects of drinking on health and safety, and also ensure professional help is available to those who need it.
Tackling workplace cultures that foster unhealthy drinking is particularly important for younger Australians; they often “learn” how to drink from their colleagues.
This is a particular issue for those working in the trades, unskilled occupations, as well as the hospitality, agricultural, and mining industries, where our research showed increased rates of problem drinking.
If we can change cultural norms and attitudes in the workplace, it’s likely that this will have a flow-on effect to the families and friends of employees.
• Dr Ken Pidd is deputy director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University in Adelaide.