Drinking on the job: Culture change needed to clean up workplaces

Instead of socialising at boozy Christmas parties or Friday night knock-off drinks, workers at Access Health bond at alcohol-free events such as tea-making classes, trips to the zoo or horse riding.

In stark contrast to the toxic workplace culture at Parliament House, where Prime Minister Scott Morrison is open to the possibility of introducing alcohol limits and breath-testing, workers at the health service in Melbourne’s east are far more likely to meet over frozen yoghurt than wine.

Access Health mental health and alcohol and drug clinicians Yoshe Le, Gabrielle Klepfisz, Carissa Mirra and Ly-Huong Tran (left to right) playing Jenga. Credit:Jason South

Beth Locke, manager of Access’ alcohol and other drug services, said it had led to an enjoyable and cohesive workplace culture.

“We want to have alternatives and make sure that this is a really normal part of working that we don’t necessarily have alcohol as part of needing to be part of a team or needing to be social,” she said.

Clinical psychologist Gabrielle Klepfisz, one of about 300 staff at Access, said socialising at the pub felt limiting as she didn’t enjoy drinking alcohol.

“I would feel a little bit excluded from it, but [an alcohol-free activity] really brings everyone together,” she said.

The suggestion for drug and alcohol reforms in Parliament House came from Liberal backbenchers Katie Allen and Sarah Henderson after weeks of reports of sexual assault, harassment and disrespectful attitudes and behaviour towards women.

On Monday, former Victorian Liberal MP Heidi Victoria said she supported drug and alcohol testing for politicians, recounting an incident when she was approached by a “very drunk” Labor MP at an after dinner parliamentary sitting who told her she was beautiful while slurring his words.

“It was so creepy and so revolting,” she told 3AW. “I was very, very uncomfortable.”

However, Professor Ann Roche, director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Adelaide’s Flinders University, said breath testing was a draconian way of improving workplace culture, and having well-understood policies was much more effective.

“If your boss and everybody else thinks it’s OK to smoke dope on site or to drink alcohol or whatever, those are the things that make a huge difference,” she said.

“Workplaces that don’t have policies are much more likely to have problematic behaviour.”

How much drinking is tolerated at workplaces varies widely between industries in Australia. Some offices still provide alcohol, whereas it’s banned at industries where heavy machinery is operated.

But Steve Bell, partner and head of employment, industrial relations and safety at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, said the era of long boozy lunches was “rapidly evaporating” everywhere.

“There’s just less and less desire or appetite for doing work in that way,” he said. “It can be, among other things, exclusionary.”

Newly analysed occupation data from the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found trade workers had the highest prevalence of risky drinking (50.3 per cent), followed by managers (46.2 per cent), unskilled workers (40.9 per cent), professionals (37.2 per cent) and skilled workers (36.2 per cent).

Risky drinking is categorised by the 2020 National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines as having more than 10 drinks a week.

Industries with the highest prevalence of risky drinking were utility services (57.6 per cent), construction (54.2 per cent), manufacturing (49.2 per cent), agriculture, forestry and fishing (49.2 per cent), arts and recreational services (48.6 per cent) and mining (47 per cent).

Mr Bell said there had been an increase in drug and alcohol testing at blue collar jobs, with many applying the same rules to managerial staff. All Commonweath-funded construction sites are required to have drug and alcohol testing.

Victorian state MPs are required to comply with a code of conduct, which doesn’t mention substances. And there is no breath- or drug testing for MPs.

A City of Melbourne spokeswoman said its councillors signed a new code of conduct in November last year, which stipulates substances can impact the ability to work, as part of reforms to encourage a better workplace culture.

An independent report for the City of Melbourne in 2018 found former lord mayor Robert Doyle sexually harassed two former councillors on separate occasions after drinking red wine. He was not charged by police and denied claims of sexual misconduct.

The spokeswoman said a “limited” amount of alcohol was available after council meetings and that it was closely managed and monitored by staff trained in responsible service.

Meanwhile, council staff are banned from attending work if they are intoxicated.

The Victorian Public Sector workers’ code of conduct says they must not misuse substances when at work or related activities.

Their federal counterparts’s code stipulates they must act with care and diligence, but doesn’t have any specific requirements in relation to drugs and alcohol. The Australian Public Service Commission said it expected agency heads to enact relevant policies to each industry.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald requested to see the drug and alcohol policies of a range of Australia companies, including the four large banks and four major accounting firms, which did not respond or declined to comment.

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