The likelihood that the average person is a heavy drinker varies widely depending on their profession, and blue-collar jobs are more highly associated with alcohol abuse, according to a new study by two researchers who examined data from more than 100,000 British workers.
The researchers also found significantly different drinking patterns between male and female workers.
Among male workers, who made up the majority of the sample, bar staff, industrial cleaning workers, auto electricians and plasterers were among the workers most likely to be heavy drinkers — defined as consuming more than 50 units of alcohol per week for men. By contrast, clergy, medical practitioners, town planners, physicists, geologists and meteorologists were the least likely male workers to drink heavily.
The workers examined were between 40 and 69 years old. A unit of alcohol is defined by the U.K. National Health Service as 10 mL of pure alcohol, which is approximately how much alcohol the average adult can process in an hour.
“This was an opportunity to have a look at alcohol and occupations from a consumption perspective, which is more relevant to people from a day-to-day perspective,” said lead author Andrew Thompson, a pharmacology and therapeutics researcher at the University of Liverpool, in an interview. “It allows us to make suggestions about which professions might benefit most from interventions.”
Thompson and his co-author, University of Liverpool colleague Munir Pirmohamed, said that their BMC Public Health paper, published Wednesday, offers lessons for governments and companies seeking to cut down on alcohol abuse, which costs the U.K. economy about GBP 9.2 billion ($13 billion) per year.
And while the sample and results were specific to Britain, Thompson said they could potentially apply to other countries, especially in Europe, North America and Australia.
“I think there would be crossover between countries,” he said.
The researchers also found differences in heavy drinking habits between male and female workers. Skilled trade workers like electricians and plumbers accounted for 44% of total jobs associated with heavy drinking for males, compared to just 5% for females. By contrast, managerial and senior workers, including corporate managers, accounted for 10% of jobs associated with heavy drinking for men and 40% for women.
“It was females who were managers and in what you would describe as more professional roles that were more likely to drink heavily,” said Thompson. “We didn’t see that with males as much.”
Among female workers, managers of bars, sports and leisure assistants, storage and warehouse managers and construction workers were the likeliest to be heavy drinkers — defined as 35 units of alcohol per week for women. The least likely were school secretaries, biologists, physiotherapists and primary and nursery school teachers.
Thompson said the study added “much more depth on females than has ever been done before” in studies on occupations and drinking.
For both genders examined, professional and managerial workers were less likely to drink heavily than blue-collar workers, the researchers found.
Several other studies in the U.S. and have used alcohol-related mortality and hospitalizations to examine links between occupations and heavy drinking. But Thompson and Pirmohamed see value in examining heavy drinking on its own, since the practice doesn’t always impact workers’ health in uniform ways.
The researchers used data collected between 2006 and 2010 by the U.K. Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database. That means their findings did not account for more than a decade of changes in economic and health policy — or the coronavirus pandemic, which may have led to heavier drinking around the world.
But even though the study does not incorporate data from the pandemic, which has killed more than 120,000 people in the U.K. alone, Thompson said the coronavirus has underscored why employers should care about the health of their workers.
“The previous 12 months or so we’ve had with COVID has demonstrated the health of individuals and workforces is very important, and I think more employers are taking responsibility for their employees’ health and well-being,” he said. “Keeping the workplace healthy and happy ultimately leads to increased productivity.”
Thompson said other researchers should build on his work by examining what specific workplace initiatives can reduce heavy drinking.
“Are workers happy with interventions in the workplace? And would those interventions be conducted on a one-to-one, or in small groups or large groups?” asked Thompson. “They can ultimately help companies and businesses improve productivity.”
However, workers may resist such measures because drinking while not at work is typically seen as a personal activity outside the purview of employers, according to Thompson.
The paper, titled “Associations between occupation and heavy alcohol consumption in UK adults aged 40–69 years: a cross-sectional study using the UK Biobank,” was published in February 2021 by BMC Public Health. The authors are Andrew Thompson and Munir Pirmohamed of the University of Liverpool.