Sifiso Skenjana | Let's limit our (economic) babbalas under Level 3 - and afterwards

Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)
Sifiso Skenjana (supplied)
  • Binge drinking impacts productivity. 
  • Working remotely, employees can hide the effects of drinking on the job - or having a hangover - more easily. 
  • The coronavirus gives us an opportunity to revisit policies on drinking and the workplace, to see if there's a way to reduce losses. 

As the country adjusts to alert Level 3, many South Africans will be enjoying being able to purchase and consume their favourite alcoholic beverages in the comfort of their homes, which were prohibited from being sold at Levels 5 and 4.

This coin does, however, have two sides to it: What is gained in terms of personal liberties and economic activity in this sector, may be lost in productivity in the other sectors.

According to the World Health Organisation's (WHO) report Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2018, South Africa ranked 5th globally in terms of the litres (28.9) of pure alcohol consumed per capita per year. The report also found that 30.6% of men and 6.5% of women in the country engaged in heavy episodic drinking.

Given the reported prevalence of heavy episodic drinking (also known as binge drinking) - and debates over the impact on the healthcare system aside - we can expect this to have negative effects for levels of productivity, particularly in a Covid-19 impacted economy. Some workers are able to work remotely, so they sidestep any need to be seen with red eyes, brewery smells, nausea and the endless counterproductive effects of a babbalas. Hangovers either result in increased absenteeism or increased presenteeism – the case where workers come to work "sick".

In the UK, research from the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), Financial Headache: The cost of workplace hangovers and intoxication to the UK economy 2019 estimated the hangover cost to their economy at £1.4 billion a year (approx. R30.3 billion). Their research surveyed 3 400 British employees and found that 42% had at some point gone to work intoxicated, and 9% had done so in the last six months.

The cost of drinking

Some 39% of all respondents believed that they were less productive when they were drunk or hungover, due to impairments in attention, coordination and memory.

In the US, the Centre for Disease Control estimated the economic cost of hangovers to be approximately $77 billion in 2010, due to impaired productivity at work, and not accounting for alcohol-induced absenteeism.

In New Zealand, the 2019 estimates from the University of Otago estimated the hangover cost at $1.65 billion per annum.

In South Africa, there is a dearth of research detailing the hangover cost to the economy; but based on the findings of the WHO alcohol consumption report, one can reasonably deduce the number to also be in the billions of rands.

The available research (Goetzal et al: 2009) points to a positive relationship between consumption of cigarettes and alcohol to absenteeism and presenteeism. Research from Momentum Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA) estimated presenteeism, based on Q4 2017 numbers, at R89 billion, and R122 billion when you include absenteeism. The reported numbers have no direct/specific attribution for hangovers and productivity losses.

These findings present an interesting opportunity for new workplace policies that could ensure minimal productivity loss due to hangovers and alcohol overindulgence.

Just like how the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way of work, as well as attitudes towards occupational health and safety, businesses can look to introduce breathalysers at points of entry, in the same way many mining, manufacturing and utilities companies already do.

Not only will this result in better productivity outcomes for companies - but, indirectly, this will also result in the scaling of the currently small manufacturing capacity for breathalysers countrywide, and reduce the negative social impact of alcohol overindulgence – death, accidents, health issues, domestic abuse, etc.

One workplace policy change brings promise to many positive externalities.

Sifiso Skenjana is the Chief Economist at IQbusiness. Follow him on Twitter: @sifiso_skenjana

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