Workplace drinking couples risk with reward

Nick Golding questions whether the merits of alcohol-based team building and social incentives outweigh the potential risks of drinking

Case Study: Bacardi-Martini

Article in full

Employers are undeniably becoming more health conscious on behalf of their employees. Healthcare benefits are among some of the most popular perks around with 62% of employers providing these benefits in order to improve the health and wellbeing of staff, according to Employee Benefits/HSA Healthcare research 2006. Legislation is also playing a part. The Health Bill will ban smoking in the workplace from summer 2007.

So why is alcohol often promoted as a benefit to staff? The drug contributed to the death of 6,614 men and women across England and Wales alone in 2004, according to data from the Office of National Statistics.

Even though employer-funded alcohol exists, for example, in the form of after-work drinks and discounted wine clubs, many believe this is not a problem. They maintain that consumption or promotion of alcohol at work will not face the same fate as smoking.

Although many claim that moderation is key in relation to alcohol, if this is not achieved, there can be serious consequences. Malcolm Higgs, director of the leadership, change and HR school at Henley Management College, explains: "There is a fine balance between acknowledging success, encouraging socialisation and being irresponsible."

Even though smoking in the workplace is being banned, drinking is less likely to be treated in the same way. Clive Pinder, managing director at wellness specialist Vielife, says: "From a health and wellbeing perspective, smoking kills. Even in moderation smoking kills, and employees need to know this. However, moderate alcohol consumption is not so threatening to health, so a balance needs to be found that suits both parties."

Alcohol abuse Dudley Lusted, head of healthcare at Axa PPP Healthcare, agrees: "It all comes down to the fact that we should keep fit [and] enjoy ourselves. We can all live rounded lives as long as we don’t abuse anyone or anything."

While it is agreed that moderation is key, it is also important that employers do not become complacent and ignore the potential dangers of alcohol.

The consequences of alcohol abuse can be life threatening, so employees can be educated around the dangers of drinking to excess. Where employers offer alcohol to staff the risks can be minimised. "Putting the alcohol in the workplace does open the door to risk, but like anything else the risk needs managing," says Lusted.

But with the dangers of offering alcohol so clear, this raises the question of why employers feel the need to introduce this risk into the workplace. "Why on earth offer employees discounts on bulk purchases of alcohol and fund drinks for staff as part of a benefits package [when] the potential risks are obvious?" asks Higgs.

Employer-funded after work drinking session, which contrary to popular belief do still occur in many organisations, are occasions where employees have the opportunity to drink at work at their employer’s expense.

One company which offers this service to its employees is The Carphone Warehouse, which has been organising a monthly ‘Beer Bust’ for staff since 1989. Each month, all office-based employees are invited to drinks in their workplace after hours, while shop-based staff benefit from a monthly allowance to fund a trip to the pub.

Cristina Jauregui, head of compensations and benefits at The Carphone Warehouse, explains: "If [employees] are based in our head office, we usually take over the canteen towards the end of the month and ask staff to come down after work. [They] usually stay for a few hours."

The telecommunications company has also just introduced a two-year wellbeing programme, which includes demonstrations by fitness professionals of exercises that can be carried out in the workplace. But Jauregui does not believe that running this programme alongside the Beer Bust sends mixed messages to staff. "We have a young population which works hard and has fun, so the Beer Bust works well. We do explain to them they must drink sensibly. The wellness programme is popular too. We don’t see the Beer Bust as contradictory to this," she adds.

But, others believe that cramming free alcohol consumption into a few hours not only risks the health of participating employees but also encourages excess or binge drinking.

"Employers should know better than to encourage drinking after work on a Friday. We already have a binge drinking culture in this country and gut-buster events where employees are encouraged to drink in short spaces of time only act as an encouragement," says Higgs.

Currently, just 32% of respondents to Employee Benefits/HSA healthcare research 2006 who are responsible for influencing healthcare strategy in their organisation, however, believe employers should be encouraging employees to use alcohol sensibly.

Those employers which run free drinking events should look beyond the end of the session. They should also bear in mind that their responsibilities towards employees’ health will continue once staff have left the office. Andrew McNeil, director at the Institute of Alcohol, explains: " If you are part of the practice, you cannot wash your hands of it all when it goes wrong. And what is more, how do people get home?"

Another way in which alcohol arises in the workplace is through voluntary or flexible benefits scheme, where employers use their purchasing power to provide employees with the opportunity to buy wine at a discounted price.

Many wine providers not only offer discounts and deals to attract new customers, they also deliver the cases of wine directly to employees’ home addresses. They claim that business is on the up, because the product is cheap and easy to administer for employers and benefits schemes present an opportunity for staff to save money on alcohol.

Guy Richardson, head of corporate sales at Direct Wines for Business, says: "This is a very exciting project for many employers. [Around] 5% of organisations are now offering it to their staff as a flexible benefit and this is set to rise."

But the promotion of discounted wine to employees as a benefit can have grave long-term implications, as employers do not always know the entire history of their workforce. For all they know, they could be offering a cheap and simple way for those with drink problems to purchase booze.

"To me, the idea of offering employees alcohol as a benefit of working for that company is not a sensible one. It is irresponsible as many employers do not know the history of their staff," says Higgs.

And McNeil agrees that such a benefit may give out the wrong message to some employees. "What employers don’t think about is the message they are giving to staff. What if an employee has got a drinking problem, what kind of a message is the employer giving then?"

But, providers of wine schemes insist that that health issues are discussed when selling in the product and that recommended allowances are provided to employers. "The issue of responsibility does come up when we are discussing the product with organisations [as] some are concerned about how it will affect their image. We do propose that employees order just one case of wine every three months, which amounts to one bottle a week. We want to encourage sensible drinking at home," says Richardson.

However, Paul Avis, director at Employ-mend, believes employers which offer discounts on wine as part of their benefits package can be doing more to act responsibly.

"Employers which sponsor wine club access and membership should question how this fits in with their wellness strategy. Also, employers should perhaps offer employees advice on safe drinking limits and links to alcohol awareness websites where further advice and guidance could be sought," he explains.

Case study: Bacardi-Martini

Bacardi-Martini operates a dry site where no alcohol is consumed in the workplace, but it does offer its 460 Southampton-based employees discounts with a purchase limit of £80 per month and free alcohol packs on certain occasions such as Christmas.

Colleen Potter, employee engagement manager at Bacardi-Martini, explains: "We offer employees the chance to use the staff shop each month, where they can purchase discounted Bacardi-Martini drinks."

However, the company not only educates employees on the dangers of alcohol, but also balances its provision with access to various healthcare benefits. Each new employee is instructed on the dangers of alcohol and the need to drink sensibly, while each drink purchased from the on-site shop is accompanied by an alcohol safety leaflet. An on-site gym, frequent visits from an occupational health adviser and a week-long wellness programme, which is run each year, all aim to encourage healthy living among staff.

"We wanted to find a balance. We want our staff to enjoy the benefits but drink sensibly, so we offer health support as well as discounts on alcohol," says Potter. But she admits alcohol would probably not feature in its package if Bacardi-Martini was not an alcoholic drinks company.

"It is only because we produce alcoholic drinks we offer it to staff. If we were Nike we’d give away trainers," she says.


The current focus on the forthcoming ban on smoking in enclosed public places has raised issues in relation to the consumption of other harmful substances in the working environment, namely alcohol.

The health and wellbeing of staff is an increasingly topical issue for employers which arguably does not fit well with the provision of benefits such as a discounted bar, after-work free alcoholic drinks, and wine clubs. But, at this point in time, it is unlikely that the government’s current focus on health will extend to legislating against such workplace practices.

Its Health Bill, which is due to receive Royal Assent in July, seeks to ensure a healthier working environment for all UK employees by banning smoking in the workplace.

The intention is to protect employees from the effects of passive smoking and to encourage those who do smoke to quit by banning smoking in all workplaces and enclosed public areas, excluding pubs that do not have restaurant facilities. The smoking ban will also apply to company vehicles where there is more than one occupant.

A similar ban has already been introduced in Scotland, forcing English company car drivers crossing the border to adhere to the rules. The ban will come into effect in England in summer 2007, though some companies, such as BT, have already introduced a ban on smoking in the workplace and company cars.