May 22, 2020

Working safely from home during Covid-19

Woman working from home with cats

A 2011 national survey revealed that one in 20 Australian workers admit to having worked under the influence of alcohol1 at some point in their career.

Nine years on and many Australians are now working from home, thanks to COVID-19. This environment provides a truly isolated workspace in which access to alcohol during work hours is easier than ever.

The concerning 2011 survey results, further complicated by recent coronavirus trends, demonstrates that Australian workplaces need to continue talking about the negative outcomes that may be caused or sustained by someone working while affected by alcohol or other drugs (AOD).

COVID-19 and alcohol use at home

People who are already experiencing challenges with alcohol, or have in the past, are even more vulnerable to using alcohol as a coping mechanism during this highly stressful time.2

For people working from home, the current climate of fear and uncertainty might compound other stressors that already exist; and we know that many Australians have reported drinking alcohol as one way they cope with stress.3

In its analysis of how the coronavirus is affecting household spending, CommBank measured purchases on CBA credit and debit cards and found that alcohol sales at bottle shops were up 36.8% per cent from last year.4

In conjunction with this, a recent survey conducted by YouGov and FARE gathered responses from a nationally representative sample of 1,045 Australians and found that one in five (20%) households reported buying more alcohol than usual since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia. In households where more alcohol was purchased than usual:

  • 70% are drinking more alcohol than normal
  • 28% have been drinking alcohol on their own more often.
  • 34% say they are now drinking alcohol daily.5

If Australians are in fact consuming more alcohol during this pandemic – and a significant portion of the population is working from home – there is a real risk for potential crossover.

Maintaining healthy work practices

Many of the current workplace factors that are linked to risky alcohol consumption remain relevant for people working from home; with some likely being amplified during this time.

These factors include high stress environments, social isolation, shift work and insecure employment, as well as workplace experiences of discrimination, harassment and conflict.6

It is also important that we are aware of certain industries that have a higher prevalence of work-place alcohol and drug consumption; and are therefore at a higher risk of alcohol-related harms. This includes construction, financial services, manufacturing, hospitality and agriculture.1

But working directly under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is not the only source of AOD-related harm in the new working from home environment.

It’s not just on the day

It can be easy to forget that the after-effects of AOD use, particularly intensive use, also have negative impacts on the workplace that can result in serious health and safety harms and significantly impaired performance.

For people working from home, it is easy to assume that this is no longer a concern due to the absence of supervision.

Being hungover from alcohol, coming down off other drugs, or simply being exhausted by a big weekend of use may impact someone’s ability to concentrate, think and react quickly, and make good decisions – regardless of the working environment.

Depending on the work that person is undertaking, this reduced performance could lead to errors or mistakes – and in certain workplaces – the harms could be much more severe.

The impacts can fall on one or more people, in addition to the person affected by AOD.

One in 10 workers say they’ve experienced negative effects from a co-worker’s use of alcohol.7 This includes:

  • being involved in an accident or close call
  • reduced ability to do their job
  • having to work extra hours to cover for a co-worker
  • a co-worker taking one or more days off work.

What workers and workplaces can do

There are steps that workplaces can take to protect their workers from AOD harms:

  1. establish a clear policy about alcohol and other drugs in the workplace, including how incidents will be managed
  2. make a support service, such as an Employee Assistance Program, available to help workers and managers deal with AOD issues they may be experiencing (this should not be limited to alcohol and other drugs, but also include ways to deal with stress, conflict, bullying, etc.)
  3. take steps to regularly educate employees about alcohol and other drugs, including the potential impacts at work, at home and to employees’ long-term health and wellbeing
  4. for organisations that have most employees working from home during COVID-19 – continue to provide information to staff on safe work practices and existing policies and procedures for working from home.

Taking the steps to ensure that people are well supported at work — whether that be in a high-risk environment or their own home— could make a real difference to reducing the harms from AOD in Australia.

  1. Pidd K, Roche, A. & Buisman-Pijlman, F. Intoxicated workers: findings from a national Australian survey. Addiction. 2011 106.
  2. North CS, Ringwalt CL, Downs D, Derzon J, Galvin D. Postdisaster course of alcohol use disorders in systematically studied survivors of 10 disasters. Archives of general psychiatry. 2011;68(2):173-80.
  3. Australian Psychological Society. Stress & wellbeing: how Australians are coping with life. Melbourne: APS; 2015.
  4. CommBank. An early look at how the coronavirus is affecting household spending. 30 March 2020 [cited 2020 April 22].
  5. FARE. Many Australians using more alcohol and worried about household drinking Deakin ACT: Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.; 2020.
  6. VicHealth. Reducing alcohol-related harm in the workplace (An evidence review: summary report). Melbourne 2012.
  7. Dale C, & Livingston, M. The burden of alcohol drinking on co-workers in the Australian workplace. Medical Journal of Australia. 2012;193(3):138-40.

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