A new study has found that moderate drinkers take less time off of work due to illness than those who do not drink at all and those who drink excessively. Although experts have called the findings “important,” they do not suggest that drinking moderately is healthier than abstaining from alcohol.
Led by a team at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, researchers analysed survey results and absence records from over 47,000 people in the United Kingdom, France and Finland over the years 1985 to 2004. People who had stopped drinking due to health reasons were excluded from the study.
Excessive and non-drinkers were between 20% and 50% more likely to take time off for illnesses including respiratory and digestive conditions, muscular and skeletal problems and mental health disorders.
The effect was most pronounced for issues related to mental health – individuals who abstained from drinking alcohol were around 50% more likely to have an absence connected to a mental health disorder.
The findings were published on Tuesday in the journal Addiction.
Even those who consumed amounts of alcohol above recommended limits in the UK were found to have fewer absences. Men who consumed between one and 34 units of alcohol per week and women who consumed between one and 11 units were found to have a low risk of taking time off of work due to illness. Women who consumed above 11 units per week and men who consumed more than 34 units, however, were more likely to have an absence linked to injury or alcohol poisoning.
Current UK guidelines recommend drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol per week on a regular basis, which equates to about six pints of beer or six glasses of wine.
Although the authors sought to ensure the results were not skewed by people who avoided drinking because of health conditions, they said this still may have been a factor in the results.
“Some diseases, or their treatment, prevent alcohol use, which may explain the excess risks among abstainers,” said lead author Dr Jenni Ervasti, from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. “Moreover, participants to whom at-risk drinking causes health problems may be selected out from the labour market, that is, if they retire early or become unemployed. Then, the adverse effects are not seen in absence from work due to illness.”
Despite the study’s limitations, “the findings are important,” particularly since the trend was observed in three different countries “with very different drinking cultures,” said Dr James Nicholls, director of research and policy development at Alcohol Research UK.
“It doesn’t say abstinence causes ill health, rather that – for reasons still unclear – abstainers are more likely to also be unwell,” Dr Nicholls said, explaining how the findings should be interpreted.
The results, therefore, do not suggest that drinking moderately is better for health than avoiding alcohol.
Dr Nicholls, who was not involved in the research, stressed the need to take the study’s findings in context: “while the findings don’t provide evidence that ‘alcohol is good for you’, they do suggest drinking moderately is not likely to lead to missing work through illness.”
Even moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to a variety of health problems. A study published in April in The Lancet medical journal found that drinking as little as one alcoholic drink per day could reduce life expectancy.
New guidelines released last month by the World Cancer Research Fund recommended avoiding all alcohol in order to reduce cancer risk. “Alcohol is strongly linked to an increased risk of six cancers,” including breast, bowel and liver cancer, according to the guidelines.