/ 2 May 2023

Alcohol abuse a threat in the South African workplace

Alcohol Abuse
Employers have a role to play in reducing the harm caused by alcohol abuse and helping employees get the help they need

Workers’ Day in South Africa, given our painful history of social exclusion and racial segregation, pays reverence to the gains we’ve made in shaping a more fair and just society. 

But we still carry the scars of our past, some more explicit than others. For instance, the consequence of the so-called “dop system”, in which wine farmers in the old Cape Colony supplemented the meagre wages of their workers with wine, is still felt today in the high prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders in the Western Cape. Such labour practices have been outlawed but we need to do much more to protect the country’s workforce from the harmful effects of alcohol abuse. 

Besides posing serious public health, social and economic risks for the country, alcohol abuse in the workplace has serious consequences for employees and employers.

Although only a third of the South African population consumes alcohol, more than half of those who drink are “binge drinkers”, defined as having more than five standard drinks in one sitting. This contributes to illness, absenteeism and even aggressive behaviour, which can result in uncompromising attitudes by employers towards their workers.

These outcomes have cost implications for companies beyond the toll of absenteeism. Studies in the US have shown that alcohol abuse can be linked to 232 million missed workdays annually.

Local research has illustrated that alcohol abuse among South African workers results in decreased productivity, accidents in the workplace, errors, criminal activities and an increase in medical expenses.

Despite evidence of the societal and economic toll of abuse, lawmakers are not doing enough to regulate the sale and advertising of alcohol. The Liquor Amendment Bill, in its current form, could reduce alcohol consumption by up to 7%, but there appears to have been no movement on the Bill for several years.

Not only is alcohol comparatively cheaper here than it is in other parts of the world, research shows that a significant proportion of the alcohol sold to the licenced market is finding its way into informal and unlicensed establishments through redistributors. 

While it’s imperative that our lawmakers strengthen legislation to limit the sale and availability of liquor to reduce alcohol-related harm, employers also have a role to play. 

It starts with every South African company — regardless of its size or the sector it operates in — establishing, communicating and implementing a clear policy on alcohol abuse.

Such a policy would indicate the company’s level of tolerance for employees consuming alcohol, or being under the influence, while executing their duties — regardless of the work they perform. 

Alcohol abuse at work must also move away from a legal approach that seeks to punish or dismiss an employee for alcohol-related transgressions. Alcoholism, like other health problems, requires a pragmatic health-centred approach — especially in the workplace. This is a practical consideration as the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration has consistently ruled that it is not the employee’s responsibility to ensure sobriety but the responsibility of the employer.

South African workers also need to understand the harmful effects of alcohol abuse and be able to seek out treatment when necessary. There are numerous treatment and rehabilitation options available nationwide but they are seldom used by those who need them most. South Africa is considered to have the highest reported prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders in the world but it remains largely untreated in many instances — especially in the Western Cape.

The South African workplace would benefit from a pragmatic and proactive approach that includes progressive national legislation and workplace policies to address the scourge of alcohol abuse.

Nickolaus Bauer is the campaign manager for alcohol-harm reduction at DGMT.