Alcohol abuse is widespread among South African workers of all levels and it severely affects productivity and safety in the workplace. Employers need to become more aware of the problem, as the law makes business responsible for health and safety of their employees in the workplace, warns James Gregory, GM of Prime Cure Wellness.

According to a recent report by the Medical Research Council, South Africans consume a massive five billion litres of alcohol a year, which amounts to 120 litres per person per year. If one considers that many people do not drink at all, this is a shocking statistic. The report also suggests that in some communities as much as 30% of the male population and between 10% and 15% of the female population use more than 30 litres of pure alcohol a year.
Although no recent studies have been completed, alcohol abuse was estimated in 2004 to be costing South Africa more than R9 billion per year. The SA Association for Social Workers in Private Practice (SAASWIPP) estimates that some 50% of workplace accidents are related to drug and alcohol use.
Gregory says that in the experience of Prime Cure Wellness, alcohol abuse is common among workers from all walks of life. Office workers are just as susceptible to abusing alcohol as anyone else, he points out. Employees whose jobs and home lives are stressful are more likely to drink as a way of dealing with the pressure.
"Alcohol abuse can have considerable ramifications for employers," he points out. "Poor productivity and performance, absenteeism and a failure to meet deadlines are just some of them. Individuals who abuse alcohol are also more likely to be involved in criminal activities such as theft and fraud, and to be aggressive with their colleagues and superiors."
And just how do we define alcohol abuse? How often do we hear from ‘party animal’ colleagues that they are suffering a ‘babelas’, or a hangover? And, how often do we suspect that an individual is not actually taking off that Monday because of a ‘stomach bug’ as they claim, but because they had a weekend of heavy drinking? Alcohol drinking is socially accepted and alcohol is widely abused, even by individuals who we might not consider ‘alcoholics’. Alcohol can therefore affect productivity on a number of levels.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act says that employees who are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs may not enter the workplace. The Act also states that employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees in the workplace. So if a company ignores the fact that, say, a production line worker drinks, and he is subsequently injured while intoxicated, the company may find itself falling on the wrong side of the law.
According to Karen Krige, National Operations Manager at Prime Cure Wellness, employers would be unwise to dismiss workers who are suffering from alcohol or drug abuse problems without following due process. South Africa’s labour legislation compels the employer to investigate when an employee becomes incapacitated through problems such as alcohol and drug abuse. The employer must also consider counselling and rehabilitation to help the substance abuser.
Besides ensuring legal compliance and unwanted accidents, Krige says that there are many other advantages to tackling alcohol related problems in the workplace. For example, early interventions and educational programmes can improve awareness of the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, and cut down on absenteeism and improve productivity.
She advises companies to put in place substance abuse policies and substance abuse intervention programmes that can help people with serious addiction problems. Companies also need to be able to test for alcohol abuse, but may face privacy objections when attempting such an intervention.
The necessary interventions may be complex and difficult to put in place, so Krige suggests companies should implement a comprehensive wellness programme, such as that on offer from Prime Cure Wellness, which can handle all of a company’s wellness needs under a single umbrella.
"Prime Cure Wellness offers a truly holistic wellness service that is able to meet the needs of corporates of all sizes in any industry," she continues. "Our programmes are able to deal with the health needs of the blue-collar worker or the busy executive. Prime Cure Wellness is unique in its ability to bring together all aspects of healthcare in order to tailor-make an employee wellness programme that will suit every requirement," she concludes.