Turning to drink: booze control

Turning to drink: booze control

Alcohol abuse is a growing problem for accountants. Dr Mike McPhillips explains why it's one that can't be ignored

Alcohol and drug misuse is rising in Britain’s accountancy sector. Contrary
to popular myth, alcoholics are not the homeless or other itinerants. Indeed an
emphatic 75% are in full time employment. Nor is the issue of substance misuse
in the workplace confined to high-flying investment bankers or City hedge fund
executives – it affects companies in every sector in every town and city.

It is estimated that 17 million working days are lost each year due to
alcohol, which costs British industry £2.8bn, and absenteeism is two to three
times higher for alcohol and drug users than for other employees.

Nearly six million people, two-thirds of whom are men, fall within the ‘binge
drinker’ category and 40% of the British workforce under 40 has experimented
with illicit drugs. Drug users are 3.5 times more likely to injure themselves or
someone else at work.

Tackling this issue is particularly important for the accountancy sector.

Lunchtime drinking, particularly on Fridays, is endemic in accountancy
practices – it is often encouraged and may almost be expected of senior
partners. Drinking at lunchtime and after work may easily slip into misuse and
the distinction must be made between leisure drinking and drinking that affects
a person’s health, safety and productivity at work.

It is common for partners to have three or four business lunches a week, all
of which are likely to include at least one or two glasses of wine. As the hours
in a typical British working week increase, after-work socialising in the
accountancy profession has become de rigueur to unwind and this inevitably
includes further drinking.

Accountants are at a high risk of developing alcohol problems because of the
very demanding environments in which they work. The nature of the work is
inherently stressful and this is compounded by stress triggers like meeting
deadlines, managing major clients and staff and coping with the threat of
redundancy, all of which contribute to a melting pot of anxiety and worry. This
stress is not just confined to the office. Most professionals are the bread
winners for their families so their salary is essential to pay the mortgage,
school fees, holidays and the cost of living.

In my experience, high achieving accountants place an unhealthy reliance on
work for feelings of self-esteem and typically deal with these problems by
self-medicating – using alcohol to relieve their emotional and psychological

Accountants may drink to fill the void created by stress, anxiety,
depression, fear, low self-esteem, relationship problems and other mental health
issues that are an inevitable part of life. Alcohol is usually the first drug
that accountants – and most other people – will take and it fits easily into
their lives because it is socially acceptable, ubiquitous and relatively
inexpensive. The difficulty comes in recognising when there is a problem and
knowing when to stop.

Accountants in industry might find hiding an addiction relatively easy. Many
work in self-contained departments with little external communication, while
others are able to detach themselves from the mainstream milieu. Those in
practice work in teams and, as in all other sectors, colleagues usually collude
in ‘hiding’ the alcoholic’s issues from management and colleagues.

Firms and FDs cannot ignore the dangers presented by substance-dependent

Reduced productivity and the tension created by cover-ups cause fractures
within teams and high staff turnover, leading to increased recruitment and
training costs and a huge dip in productivity during the settling-in period.

Every accountancy firm is legally responsible for preventing illegal
substance-related activity on its premises. An accountant who is drinking on the
job will already have lost a lot of self-respect and, once his or her issues
become significant, will have lost the respect of colleagues. Left unchecked,
firms will face the spiralling costs of disciplinary and legal action as well as
health and safety risks if they do not take action.


An addiction is generally a substance we repeatedly crave to experience and
for which we will pay a financial, psychological and emotional price.

The weekly recommended intake of alcohol is 21 units for men and 14 for
women. A pint of lager is two units, as is a large glass of wine. If you consume
more than recommended levels, you are seriously damaging your physical and
mental health.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Have you ever felt you should cut down your drinking?
Have people annoyed you by criticising your drinking?
Have you ever felt guilty about your drinking?
Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or
get rid of a hangover?

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, it is highly likely that you
have issues with alcohol.

Recognising that a colleague is alcohol dependent is the first step in
helping them overcome the addiction. Warning signs include:

?Sudden mood changes
?Unusual irritability or aggression
?Lack of concentration
?Poor timekeeping
?Increased absence
?Deteriorating relationships with colleagues at work

If you work with someone who you suspect is misusing alcohol speak with your
line manager or HR director or, if you have one, use the whistle-blowing service
to make an anonymous complaint.

A workplace alcohol and drugs policy communicates how employees will be
treated if they have a problem with alcohol or drugs.

Clearly setting out the expectation of employees’ professional conduct should
decrease the occurrence of substance misuse. Changing existing attitudes towards
lunchtime drinking and after hours socialising is a challenge.
When a culture has been created around drinking, it can be especially difficult
to remove or replace it.

?The Priory offers a free assessment with a trained addictions therapist
to anyone who thinks they might have issues with alcohol or drugs; contact: 0845
60 50 121

Dr Mike McPhillips is consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital

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