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Price of a round

Drinking problems are costing billions in lost hours and wrecking careers,
writes Peter BartramFDs could be picking up their share of a £6.4bn tab for
drink problems in the workplace.

According to recent figures from insurance company UnumProvident, up to 17
million working days are lost each year from alcohol-related illnesses. The
equivalent of a further 20 million working days disappear as the result of lower
productivity and mistakes made by workers.

“There has been little debate about what role employers should play when the
negative effects of alcoholism become apparent in the workplace,” says Dr
Michael O’Donnell, chief medical officer at UnumProvident.

The problem of drink-fuelled under-performance has been spotlighted by the
high-profile departure of Liberal Democrat party leader Charles Kennedy.

And with the latest British Household survey showing that 26% of men had
drunk more than eight units of alcohol a day in the last year and 16% of women
more than six units, it’s likely that every FTSE-100 company has some serious
drinkers trying to hide their problem.

One who failed to hold down his job was Percy, a business high-flier in his
early career, who created a national packaging company. “I thought that success
would bring happiness, contentment and self-worth, but it didn’t. The more
successful I became, the more I didn’t feel ‘right’ and the more I drank,” he

“I thought I was drinking to celebrate, to get over disappointments and to
deal with stress. But, actually, I was drinking to fill some void that existed
within me, a feeling of incompleteness and inadequacy.”

Percy lost his business before he realised ­ in “a moment of clarity and
sanity” ­ that he had to stop drinking before it destroyed him completely. He
finally turned around his life with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.

O’Donnell is concerned that some companies’ culture may encourage heavy
drinking. “I worry about the use of booze as a lubricant in sales departments
and so on,” he says. “I’ve been told about a couple of City firms where they do
entertaining until two or three in the morning. You hear about visits to lap
dancing clubs and you know that people are not going to those places sober. I
think the idea of using booze as a lubricant while you are entertaining clients
is very harmful.”

Heavy-drinking employees try to hide their problems, but they’re not
difficult to spot. Regular absenteeism, particularly after weekends, and
frequent sick notes complaining of headaches or gastritis are indications,
O’Donnell points out.

He urges firms to take an initial sympathetic approach. “Lots of companies
have policies, which give people with drink problems the freedom to get help.
But employers need to know they are taking the help and getting better as a
result of it,” he says. “There is a myth that once someone is a boozer, you have
to get rid of them. There are plenty of people around who have beaten the
But until they do, FDs must pick up the bill for the morning after.

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