Middle class alcohol time bomb

Middle class alcohol time bomb

Released: Friday 31st May 2013 at 10:51

Middle-class professionals are risking serious health problems by using alcohol as a means of stress relief, reward for looking after a family and working full-time, new research has revealed.

Despite the common perception that young people are the section of society most affected by alcohol, new research shows it’s actually white collar workers who are most guilty of alcohol abuse.    

The research, by academics at the University of Sunderland, concludes that a complete overhaul of public health messages is needed to give a more realistic picture of those affected by alcohol.

The research analysed the drinking habits and the reasons for drinking among five different groups of workers in the public and private sectors, aged between 21 and 55.

The groups discussed their drinking patterns, their perceived norms and how much alcohol they consumed on a personal level as well as professional situations, such as entertaining clients.

Researchers found that white collar workers, a term used to describe people who have a professional or managerial-role, are “largely disregarding the harmful health and social effects” of drinking alcohol.

They found that those middle-class workers who drank at home viewed alcohol as a reward for everyday chores after work hours, such as looking after their children and cooking dinner for the family. Alcohol was also used to alleviate stress and as a way of telling the individual that they had fulfilled their commitments. One respondent said drinking alcohol after the children had gone to bed “makes me feel like an adult again”.

In light of the new evidence researchers feel public health warnings are failing to resonate with white collar workers and have instead “actively reinforced their view that their own alcohol use was problem-free”. The respondents believed that the “problem drinkers” did not include stay-at-home evening drinkers.

Instead, the report says that in future public health messages should focus on a typical person and the damages that can happen to their long-term health, and not solely the crime or disorder that alcohol abuse can result in amongst younger members of society.

Dr Jonathan Ling, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sunderland, said: “One of the issues that people tend to focus on in relation to alcohol use is ‘problem drinking’. Problem drinking is usually thought of in terms of young people binge drinking in city centres, or people with alcohol dependency. However, what is starting to be recognised is that regularly consuming alcohol at lower levels than would cause intoxication is likely to be harmful to health, and that the people that drink most regularly aren’t young people, but those who live in households where someone has a managerial or professional job.

Dr Lyn Brierley-Jones, Research Fellow at the University of Sunderland, added:   “Our research showed a common perception among some middle-class groups that regularly drinking at home, particularly wine, is safe and sensible, even though such drinking regularly takes them over the recommended daily guidelines. These home drinkers don’t see their drinking pattern as problematic, but evidence suggests that such regular drinking will lead to significant health problems later in life, and a major health burden for the NHS.”

The Government currently advises men not to regularly exceed 3-4 units of alcohol  (per day) (equivalent to a pint and a half of 4% beer) and 2-3 units of alcohol for women (175ml glass of wine).

The research also discovered that those suffering from alcohol abuse are seen as “less worthy of sympathy” than those suffering from other health problems. The respondents also said they thought it would provoke shame and they would not discuss it with colleagues or managers or even seek support within the workplace.

Whereas some drank regularly at home, others engaged in heavy drinking sessions, usually at weekends. Because such sessions are pre-planned individuals view themselves as drinkers who are under control, it is considered acceptable. Alcohol was also consumed on the basis of an individual’s perceived tolerance levels and not the recommended guidelines.

Dr Ling, said: “Drinking regularly in the home has become more common for a range of reasons. In our study, the most prominent ones were related to cost – it’s cheaper to get alcohol from a supermarket than a pub, and convenience – one of our participants commented that it was easier getting an alcoholic drink out of the fridge than making a cup of tea. Concerns about drink driving were also featured regularly in the discussions.”

Elaine Hindal, Chief Executive of alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, said: “These findings are consistent with Drinkaware’s own research* which shows three in five (62%) adults use alcohol to relax and unwind in the evening. Although people think alcohol helps to relieve stress, regularly drinking above the guidelines could actually make them feel worse. Alcohol affects the quality of sleep so heavy drinkers are more likely to be tired and stressed the next day.”

“Regularly drinking above the lower risk guidelines also increases chances of developing serious problems like cancer, heart and liver disease in the future. To avoid this risk, drinkers should monitor their intake and seek personalised advice to cut down. They can do so at drinkaware.co.uk.”

The research comes after a joint study by the University of Sunderland and Newcastle University last year highlighting a growing drink problem among older people and the surge in society’s “invisible addicts”. It showed “hidden” alcohol abuse was common because of people retiring, feelings of boredom, loneliness and depression.

The Research: A qualitative study of attitudes towards alcohol use among white collar workers: The ‘other’ in patterns of drinking, was produced jointly between Jonathan Ling, Lyn Brierley-Jones, Ann Crosland and Karen Smith from the University of Sunderland and Catherine Haighton, Graeme Wilson and Eileen Kaner from Newcastle University.

Running Head: Alcohol use by white collar workers will be published in the BMC Public Health.


Dr Jonathan Ling, Dr Lyn Brierley-Jones, Prof Ann Crosland  and Ms Karen Smith are members of the Health Sciences and Well-being Research Beacon within the Faculty of Applied Science.

Case studies:

  • Focus groups 1 and 2 - local government offices. Focus Group 1 consisted of 9 females with ages ranging from 21 to 55. Focus Group 2 was composed of 8 females and 1 male, aged from 25 to 55.
  • Focus group 3 – a private sector chemical storage company. This group consisted of 1 female and 9 males (no ages were available for this group).
  • Focus group 4 - a prison. The focus group consisted of 7 females and 4 males who ranged in age from 22 to 54.
  • Focus group 5 – a tax office. The focus group consisted of 7 females and 3 males who were aged from 36 to 51.

 The people who are predominantly doing it [drinking problematically] are in a society and a culture where it just becomes the norm; they don’t know any different - they can’t get out of it - but then you are moving into a situation where you are looking at far more than just the alcohol side of things. (Female, Focus group 1)

I was just thinking for me personally… if I thought my drinking was a problem, the last thing I would want to do then is admit that within work, because then that becomes a double problem, I've got my drinking that's a problem outside of work, and it's impacting on my work and having to admit that. (Female, Focus group 5)

Just speaking for myself, I am fully aware of all the information and fully aware of what I should be doing and what I shouldn’t be doing and how I should drink and when I should drink, but I am making a choice. I've seen all the education, I don’t think I drink excessively but if you put me on a scale according to the Government I am off the scale but, I feel fit, healthy…. (Male, Focus group 3)

I know what you mean yeah drinking to excess when you see these young teenagers on the streets can’t walk, sort of like collapsed in a heap cause they've drank that much. (Female, Focus group 5)

I drink one, because I've had a stressful day at work, two because I've had a stressful day at home, I have four children so what I do is children things and so then when I do get the kids off to bed sometimes it's nice to have a drink because it actually makes you feel like an adult again…. Like I say alcohol at home is cheap, [at] your supermarkets you can get a nice bottle of wine for £5 you go to a pub or restaurant and you’re paying £20 for it, so it's more accessible and it's easier and it's more comfortable in your own environment. (Male, Focus group 3)

I think you probably drink more if you are at home simply because you haven’t got the chew of going up to the bar to buy another drink and losing your seat and all that goes with it, at home you just, I would presume, just sit with the bottle next to you. (Male, Focus Group 2)

I think you just know how you feel and you have to judge it like that because you couldn’t read every bottle in every bar in every pub so I think people tend to just go on how they feel. (Male, Focus Group 5)

I think more people care about what they look like on the outside than the inside so if you are not putting a lot of weight on I don’t think people care that much unless you start weeing blood or something. (Male, Focus group 3)

Well it's been discredited anyway hasn’t it recently, because I mean the last thing I read about units etc., is that this man had just decided all by himself what a unit was and that then became the recommended guidance, so really it wasn’t backed up by anything particular it was just this bloke thought that sounds about right and after that it was given out as recommended guidance. (Female, Focus Group 2)

*Drinkaware research conducted by ICM between 14-18 May 2012. ICM interviewed 2,008 UK adult drinkers aged 30-45 in an online survey. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.  Further information at www.icmresearch.co.uk