17 May 2002

Hitting the bottle = more sick days

If you hit the bottle, you're less likely to punch the clock. That's the conclusion of new research that says employees who drink alcohol are nearly two times more likely than normal to call in sick to work the next day.

If you hit the bottle, you're less likely to punch the clock.

That's the conclusion of new research that says employees who drink alcohol are nearly two times more likely than normal to call in sick to work the next day.

Any level of drinking

"We were a little surprised that it worked the way it did. Particularly the fact that any drinking, heavy or not heavy, was still related to absence," says William Fals-Stewart, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo.

He and his colleagues examined the day-to-day link between alcohol use and sick days over four-week periods among 280 employees of the Ford Motor Co, National Cash Register and General Electric.

Information was collected from the employees, a friend or family member familiar with the employee's drinking behaviour, and company records.

The study examined a total of 5 493 days of scheduled work, including 173 days of worker absence. Of those sick days, 74 (43 percent) occurred the day after the absent worker consumed alcohol.

Twice as likely to call in sick

By comparing the information they collected about employee drinking and absenteeism, the researchers found the workers who drank were nearly twice as likely to call in sick to work the next day as workers who didn't drink.

The study didn't look at the amount or type of alcohol consumed, and didn't delve into drinking on the job or alcohol-related work injuries. It was published in a recent issue of the journal, Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

Not surprisingly, interviews with workers revealed that many called in sick the day after they drank because they had hangovers or were still drunk. However, there was a surprising revelation, Fals-Stewart adds.

In some cases, the employees had "pre-planned" a sick day and so they felt free to drink the day before, he says.

Alcohol part of the culture

This study is part of ongoing research into alcohol use and its impact on the workplace. While many companies regard alcohol use as a problem that hurts productivity, Fals-Stewart says, "It's quite interesting that drinking was really part of the organisational culture."

"Men would go out drinking at lunchtime, they'd go out drinking at night, they drank after work. It was almost part of how that culture worked," Fals-Stewart adds.

While it isn't new to suggest that drinking and work absenteeism are linked, the Buffalo study is significant because it offers scientific data to prove the connection, says William Sonnenstuhl, associate professor of industrial and labour relations at Cornell University.

"I would argue that what they're finding just confirms what, to a great extent, people have been saying about the workplace for at least 200 years," says Sonnenstuhl, who is also associate director of the R Brinkley Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies at Cornell.

Causing workplace conflict

Drinking and workplace issues have been, and continue to be, a source of labour-management conflict, Sonnenstuhl says. It can be difficult for workers to get help if they have a problem with alcohol because many employee-assistance programs are ineffective, he says.

Also, the way companies deal with the issue has changed since the 1980s when the emphasis was on finding treatment for employees battling alcohol or drugs, Sonnenstuhl says.

Now, such workers are likely to be fired, so they're less likely to come forward to get help, he says.


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