Is it legal to drink at work?
While there are no specific employment laws concerning the consumption of alcohol at work, some industries have laws that explicitly prohibit it. For example, where a staff member is required to drive or operate machinery or public transport, drinking at work is prohibited. This is because the law (eg the Transport and Works Act 1992 or Road Traffic Act 1988) makes it an offence to drive while under the influence of alcohol.
Can employers set their own policies?
Even if someone works in an industry that does not prohibit drinking at work, employers can set their own policies regarding workplace drinking. In fact, some workplaces (such as offices) can have a zero-tolerance attitude to drinking during office hours.
Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, employers have a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of employees and other workers. This duty of care covers several areas, including providing:
a safe place of work
safe access to work
safe systems of work
safe and competent fellow workers
protection from unnecessary risks of injury
As a result, employers must make sure that they will not cause staff unreasonable harm or loss. As part of this duty of care, employers may prohibit the consumption of alcohol during office hours to ensure that alcohol does not inhibit a staff member’s productivity and safety.
On the other hand, some workplaces may prohibit the consumption of alcohol onsite but may be more relaxed about staff drinking offsite. For example, by allowing moderate drinking during lunch breaks or when meeting clients offsite, so long as the consumption of alcohol doesn’t impair a staff member’s ability to perform their work.
Even where the consumption of alcohol is not prohibited (onsite or offsite), staff members may be sent home or otherwise reprimanded if they consume excessive amounts of alcohol. This is due to the duty employers owe to their staff, as an employer knowingly letting staff continue to work under the influence of excess alcohol could be prosecuted if the staff members are putting themselves or others at risk.
What should employers and staff members do?
Businesses should consider what approach they have towards alcohol consumption in the workplace and clearly set this out in a workplace policy.
Employers may, for example, set out that consuming alcohol during working hours amounts to misconduct or gross misconduct, meaning that staff members who break the rules may face disciplinary action. Others may allow moderate drinking during working hours provided that it does not impair staff members’ ability to perform their work.
Regardless of a business’ approach towards alcohol consumption in the workplace, any workplace policy should clearly outline what is and isn’t acceptable, so that staff members know exactly where they stand.
Staff members should carefully check employer policies to understand where they stand regarding the consumption of alcohol while at work. If no such policies exist, they should consider approaching their managers or HR department to seek clarification on the matter.
Staff members should also bear in mind that, even if a workplace has a more relaxed attitude towards drinking at work, alcohol should generally be consumed in moderation. Having too much to drink may result in lost focus and, in some circumstances, may even cause accidents and put others at risk.