Mind and Body

How jobs and gender influence how much alcohol you drink

New research gives a snapshot of specific groups of people who may be more at risk for alcohol abuse.

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Stressful days are, to some, synonymous with an after-work drink. The type of job you have may, in turn, correlate with how much alcohol you consume, according to the largest study of the subject to date, published in the journal BMC Public Health.

People in skilled trade jobs are more likely to be heavy drinkers than people in professional positions, report researchers at the University of Liverpool. But this tends to revert in the specific case of women, who are more likely to be heavy drinkers when in managerial professional roles, according to data collected from a group of over 100,000 people between the ages of 40 and 69.

These results can help experts shine a light on the relationship between work and alcohol and vice-versa, as well as inform public-health professionals on how to decrease alcohol-related issues overall.

Is there a specific job that drives increased drinking, or are people who drink more attracted to a specific type of role? The data suggests some correlations, but researchers are still exploring what conclusions can be drawn.

As researchers work to find an answer, the landscape is changing — warped by completely new trends brought about by the onset of the pandemic. When homes transformed from places of leisure to places of work, other research suggests the blurred work-life balance influenced drinking, too.

“There is a little bit of a potential cultural shift in some areas, but the perspective is 'What can we do with this data to best use finite public health resources, and employers resources?’,” lead author Andrew Thompson, a pharmacology expert at the University of Liverpool, tells Inverse.

Who uses alcohol the most?

Thompson and co-author Munir Pirmohamed found people who work in jobs like pub owners and bar-staff, construction workers, and industrial cleaners (jobs often referred to as “skilled trade”) are more likely to be heavy drinkers. Meanwhile, their analysis suggests people working in positions categorized as “professional occupants” — a group including clergy, doctors and nurses, teachers, and educators — drink less frequently.

The researchers analyzed UK Biobank data collected between 2006 and 2010 in which 100,817 participants reported their weekly or monthly drinking habits and their occupation. Women were classified as heavy drinkers if they consume more than 350 milliliters of alcohol per week (that’s about 11 glasses of wine) and men are classified as heavy drinkers if they consume more than 500 milliliters of alcohol per week (approximately 16 pints of beer).

People who work in jobs like pub owners and bar-staff, construction workers, and industrial cleaners (jobs often referred to as “skilled trade”) are more likely to be heavy drinkers, according to new research.

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Although, in general, these results are consistent with historical trends — findings since the 1890s show that people who are constantly working with alcohol, like pub-owners, are more likely to be drinkers, for example — they skew differently when factoring for differences between men and women.

“We found that, for example, female police officers were more likely to be heavy drinkers than not be heavy drinkers. So, we put that down obviously to a stress-related effect, because when policing you see a lot of things that normal everyday civilians maybe don't,” Thompson says. Female driving instructors are also a professional group with a lot of heavy drinkers, according to the data.

"Women with more professional backgrounds, particularly those who were senior officials, had the highest ratios of heavy drinking."

Ultimately, the research suggests women are more likely to be heavy drinkers when they are in higher-paying jobs and roles broadly categorized as “manager” roles.

“Women with more professional backgrounds, particularly those who were senior officials, had the highest ratios of heavy drinking,” Thompson says. Reasons for this could be alcohol is a coping mechanism for long hours, stress on the job, or other environmental work factors — but it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific reason for this trend.

“This data is also consistent with quite a lot of evidence out there to suggest that females from more affluent backgrounds, purely from a socioeconomic status, but also those who are more highly educated, are the group that drinks most heavily,” Thompson says.

The data also suggests medical practitioners' relationship with alcohol has changed quite a lot over the years in regards to alcohol consumption. When studies of this sort were conducted back in the mid-1950s, medical practitioners were one of the groups with the highest level of alcohol consumption. Today, they’re at the bottom of the list.

Thompson speculates it may be due to the changing demographic among this slice of the workforce: today there more women in medical practitioner roles than there were 70 years ago, and women still drink less overall. There is also a general greater diversity of religious and cultural backgrounds, which may explain a difference in preference for alcohol.

Does your job affect your drinking, or does your drinking affect your job?

The problem with studies like this is that research can provide a picture of a correlation, but it cannot say one finding is a result of the other, Thompson explains.

It’s a chicken and egg situation: there’s no way of telling whether certain occupation choices cause heavier drinking or whether it’s all the other factors that also influence that choice — like upbringing, education, cultural surroundings, socioeconomic status, and so forth.

“This is just taking data from the real world, cross-sectional data, and looking at associations between occupation and alcohol consumption, to determine which group appears to be at greater risk than others,” Thompson says. “Until you put that into some form of controlled environment, we are unable to say that that is a causal effect.”

Women with more professional backgrounds had the highest ratios of heavy drinking, the study found.

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But these results do provide a snapshot of some specific groups of people who may be more at risk than initially thought. It also gives researchers a plethora of information regarding which groups are potentially going to benefit the most from any form of intervention, whether that be workplace-based or an intervention developed by public health services.

This is especially important in a world where employee health and wellbeing are increasingly prioritized, and relationships to work are rapidly changing. Moving forward, Thompson aims to expand his research to increase the range of population age and explore alcohol consumption and occupation among 20-to 40-year-olds, whose relationship with drinking is often in a state of flux — as is their work.

Marianna Virtanen, a psychology professor at the University of Eastern Finland, tells Inverse that the results seem to make sense in terms of heavy drinking prevalence in different occupations, but agrees that we yet cannot establish whether occupation affects drinking or drinking affects choice of occupation. Virtanen is not affiliated with the new study.

She does point out that the study does focus solely on the heaviest drinkers of the population, because it defines heavy drinking as more than 35 units for women and more than 50 units for men, while the United Kingdom guidelines state more than 14 units is the risk limit. In the United States, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines argue the safest way to consume is 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women — or no alcohol at all.

In her own research, Virtanen has explored the relationship between working hours and alcohol consumption, concluding that individuals whose working hours exceed standard recommendations are more likely to increase their drinking.

The rise of the work-from-home effect — Now that a worldwide shift to working from home has taken our jobs into our houses, living rooms, and bedrooms, research suggests alcohol use experienced a change.

In a study of 5,931 responses gathered from participants recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk, scientists found a 400 percent increase in the number of people whose alcohol use became “severe alcohol dependence” during the period between April and September 2020 (the peak Covid-19 times for most countries). This was only true for those under lockdown — the change wasn't significant among those who did not switch to working from home (like essential workers), first author William Killgore, a psychiatry professor at the University of Arizona, tells Inverse.

“We dug into the data a bit deeper and found that the higher levels of alcohol use were most notable among those who reported being under lockdown and gainfully employed, especially for morning drinking,” Killgore says.

“Our results suggest that people who were working from home during that time appeared to be drinking more during the day than prior to the pandemic.”

Killgore chalks it up to a temporary spike, maybe due to the fear of the unknown of the looming pandemic months, and the lack of access to typical outlets of stress (like hanging out with friends or working out).

“More research is necessary, but our preliminary data suggest that the pattern is already getting better as lockdowns have decreased. But, unfortunately, there will likely be a significant percentage of people who will have long-term fallout with regard to the effects of excessive alcohol use on health, work, or relationships,” Killgore says.

The Inverse analysis — Understanding how our work-life affects our relationship to alcohol and how alcohol, in turn, affects our ability to work is complex. It’s also important to understand: Alcohol can slow reaction time, lead to errors in judgment, and generally degrade cognitive processing and physical performance. A drink is never quite just a drink.

Petri Böckerman is a professor of health economics at the Jyväskylä University School of Business. He tells Inverse abusing alcohol can lead to "reduced labor market participation, employment, and lower level of annual earnings."

“And that positive relationship between alcohol consumption and sickness absence is particularly pronounced for low-educated males," Böckerman says.

And because lockdown has led to increased use of alcohol, there’s an additional and often neglected indirect cost related to lockdowns too.

Further research into which slices of the population and which occupations are most likely to be associated with a higher ratio of heavy drinkers — and how that is changing — can help define how to intervene and benefit individuals, the wider economy, and society as a whole.

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