Addressing alcohol abuse in the workplace

Addressing alcohol abuse in the workplace

Anyone who has seen the TV series “Mad Men,” or any number of old black and white movies about hard-working newspaper editors or beleaguered police sergeants, is familiar with the concept of the whiskey bottle in the desk. Although it is often glorified as a throwback to a faded era, alcohol abuse by employees is an ongoing issue that can affect businesses due to costs from absenteeism, presenteeism, on-the-job injuries and health complications.

Alcohol use and the workplace
Alcohol abuse is a costly issue for employers and more prevalent than one might imagine. In 2015, 15.1 million adults aged 18 and older had alcohol use disorder – which includes severe alcohol use.[1] What’s more, absenteeism is estimated to be four to eight times greater among alcoholics and alcohol abusers.[2]

There are numerous reasons why excessive alcohol use is a problem, chief among them being that chronic or excessive drinking may cause or worsen an employee’s existing physical and psychological problems, including stroke, heart attack, depression, liver disease and even irreversible brain damage. Managers and co-workers of these employees are impacted as well, often realizing that there is something going on but feeling powerless to help.

While warning signs can be varied, learning to identify these signs and respond to a potential problem in its early stages is not only good business practice, it can make a huge difference in the lives of the impacted employee and his or her loved ones.

Ways to identify and support employees
There are two primary types of alcohol use at the root of the majority of problems in the workplace: drinking alcohol prior to going to work or drinking on the job. While some employees are secretive about their alcohol consumption, others might not even realize they have a problem until someone who is impacted by that person’s use — a friend, a loved one or a close colleague — has a conversation with them.

There are a few signs that an employee is under the influence on the job:

  • Coordination issues
  • Bloodshot or glassy eyes
  • Slow pupil response
  • Difficulty completing work assignments, or avoidance of their usual workload
  • Slurred speech
  • Nausea, pale appearance

Regardless of how the problem is noticed, helping an employee with an alcohol problem access the level of treatment he or she needs is always a priority. If it is suspected that an employee’s alcohol use has begun to impact his or her job performance, it is best to address the issues sooner rather than later.

Like other chronic conditions, abuse of alcohol doesn’t tend to improve without some form of treatment. Scheduling a face-to-face meeting with the impacted employee is a good place to start. Unless the employee has been obviously impaired on the job or informs you of his or her alcohol dependency issues, it is important to remember to focus on his or her job performance and to not raise issues of substance abuse that are not strongly substantiated. A referral to an EAP is appropriate at this point, along with a reminder that the employee is expected to work toward correcting work performance issues.

For many employers, it may be hard to approach an employee they suspect is struggling with alcohol use in the workplace. By keeping the conversation focused on their job performance, you can help connect the employee with available resources to help treat his or her alcohol dependency issues.

[1] Alcohol Facts and Statistics, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, February 2017, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.

[2] Alcohol in the Workplace: Handbook for Supervisors, Office of Personnel Management, (missing date) https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/worklife/reference-materials/alcoholism-in-the-workplace-a-handbook-for-supervisors/.

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