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Workplace Drinking Culture Influences Employees' Alcohol Use


TORONTO -- Workers are less likely to drink heavily, frequently, or at work if the companies discourage drinking, researchers found.

TORONTO, May 25 -- Workers are less likely to drink heavily, frequently, or at work if the companies discourage drinking, researchers found.

In environments where drinking is most discouraged, workers were 45% less likely to be heavy drinkers, 54% less likely to be frequent drinkers, and 69% less likely to drink at work than their counterparts in workplaces with the most relaxed attitudes toward drinking, according to an online report in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The percentage of the various drinking behaviors decreased as social norms discouraging drinking increased, said Benjamin C. Amick, Ph.D., of the Institute for Work and Health here and the University of Texas, Houston.

Dr. Amick and colleagues surveyed 5,338 workers at 16 Fortune 500 companies. Almost 40% were drinkers; 19% (1,015) were classified as heavy drinkers outside of work, 8% (423) as frequent drinkers, and 11% (577) as drinking at work.

Overall, women, workers who frequently attended religious services (once or more a week; at least once a month), and people living with a partner were less likely to drink. On the other hand, younger workers and those who smoked were more likely to drink, the researchers reported.

Their findings came from a detailed analysis of workplace attitudes and drinking behavior, with complete data nested in 137 supervisory workgroups. This analysis was part of the Worksite Alcohol Study phase II conducted in 1994.

To examine the drinking-social norm relationship, various workgroups were divided into four groups based on a quartile distribution. Workgroups in the first quartile had the most encouraging drinking norms while those in the fourth quartile had the most discouraging norms.

Workers were classified as frequent drinkers if, during the past 30 days, they had consumed any beer, wine, or liquor on five or more days in a week.

Men were considered heavy drinkers if they drank five or more drinks in one day in the past month. For women the cut-off was four or more drinks in the same time span.

Workers were considered to drink at work if they reported drinking during the workday or if they had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days two hours before going to work, during lunch or a break, while working, before driving a vehicle on company business, or at a company-sponsored event.

Measures of worksite management tolerance were based on responses by managers to questions about how tolerant the worksite was about drinking in an earlier survey of the same sites, the researchers said.

Drinking social norms were measured by answers to eight statements:

Having a drink or two after work to relax; getting together for drinks after work; drinking with clients and customers is good for business; supervisors miss key information if they don't socialize with colleagues over a drink; a drink or two a day is good for a person's health; having a few beers at lunch is a reasonable way to deal with a boring job; the more frequently people are exposed to alcohol, the more likely they are to develop an alcohol problem; serving alcohol at a company social event sets a bad example.

Workers reported their agreement ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. From this information and other evaluations the researchers established workgroup "social norms."

Notably, the researchers said, while the observed association was stronger for drinking at work, workgroup norms were also strongly associated with decreased odds for drinking behavior outside the work environment, suggesting the potential long reach of worksite-based public health campaigns, the researchers said.

This study supports and extends previous research, Dr. Amick said. "To our knowledge," he added, "this is the first study using a multilevel design and analysis with measures of group level social norms. To extend the generalizations of previous social-norms research, this study was conducted in a wide range of organizations with different dominant occupations and managerial attitudes toward drinking."

Some limitations must be noted, the investigators acknowledged. For example, the cross-sectional design precluded separating out relations between social norms and drinking. Self-selection of drinkers to favorable workplaces might also produce clusters of workers with similar beliefs, which might be interpreted as drinking social norms.

Another criticism of aggregated measures is that they capture individual not group characteristics, the researchers said. However, they believe, a statistical test suggests that this is not so.

Model misclassification may have been a confounder, they said. Nevertheless, the final model estimates were adjusted for a wide range of known drinking risk factors, such as gender, age, education, salary, family history, alcohol, and attendance at religious services, the researchers said.

Organizations that discourage drinking reduce the likelihood of both heavy and frequent drinking outside of work as well as drinking on the job, Dr. Amick said. However, further prospective research is needed to show a causal relationship between drinking social norms and actual drinking, he and his colleagues said.

As part of a broad-based public health campaign, the current study suggests the importance of job-based social interventions to reduce drinking, alcohol-related injuries, illnesses, and diseases beyond the workplace, Dr. Amick said.

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