Alcohol Awareness Week takes place 1 to 7 July 2024 and is an ideal opportunity for employers to take stock of the particular issues that overseas employees face, and to consider putting in place support, says Towergate Health & Protection.

Sarah Dennis, head of international at Towergate Health & Protection, says: “Alcohol and its miss-use can be a big issue for overseas employees in particular, and awareness of the added pressures they can face is an important starting point for employers as it will help them to provide the right kinds of support.”

The issues for local nationals and employees working abroad

Employees working overseas, whether short or long term, may be tempted to use alcohol as a way to relax or to lower social inhibitions to help them to integrate more easily; they may also use alcohol to self-medicate if they are feeling lonely, isolated, or struggling with the pressures of the role. It can also be imbedded within different cultures which can make it difficult to escape, such as ‘nomikai’ in Japan: the practice of going to after-work drinking parties with colleagues.

Alcohol and alcohol dependence can also be an issue for local nationals. An influx of other nationalities can impact a drinking culture in an area, or there may be high levels of alcohol dependence in a region due to in-country pressures, such as political situations or the standard of living.

Alcohol now more accessible

As alcohol is much cheaper in some countries it can make it more accessible. The Far East, Eastern Europe and Latin America are known for selling alcohol at low prices, with a half-litre of beer costing around £0.77 in China, £0.90 in Belarus and £1.00 in Columbia. This compares to around £6.50 in London.

In additional, areas that have previously had complete bans on alcohol are now having a change of stance. Saudi Arabia has recently announced that it will be opening a shop in Riyadh selling alcohol to non-Muslim ex-pats for the first time in over 70 years. The UAE and Qatar also now allow the sale of alcohol to non-Muslims over the age of 21 in hotels, clubs and bars.

Health-related risks

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that alcohol consumption contributes to three million deaths each year globally. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 years, accounting for 10% of all deaths in this age group. The organisation has classified alcohol as a Group One carcinogen, meaning that it is known to cause cancer. The more alcohol a person consumes, the greater their risk associated with developing some cancers, including liver, mouth and breast cancer.

Sarah Dennis says: “Global employers need to be aware of the potential impact on medical claims for alcohol-related diseases or where alcohol may exacerbate other conditions: it’s good business practice to provide support, and important to regularly check in with colleagues.”

Support available

It is vital that employers with overseas staff have a health and wellbeing programme in place to provide support relating to alcohol. Providing access to a GP, whether face-to-face or virtual, is a good starting point. Global employee assistance programmes can provide support and counselling for underlying mental health issues. Interactive apps can support healthy lifestyle choices.

As always, prevention is better than cure, and providing health and wellbeing support to overseas employees from the very beginning of their deployment can help stop issues escalating. Regular contact and check-ins with employees based away from home is vital.

Sarah Dennis says: “I hope Alcohol Awareness Week will spur employers into at least making contact with their overseas employees and checking how they are getting on with the challenges of working abroad. If support programmes can also be put in place, then this will be a major positive in the fight against alcohol-related problems.”