2015 - Alcoholism and its impact in the workplace

Here in the UK, we can sometimes be guilty of turning a blind eye to heavy drinking and see it just as a ‘bit of fun’. However, when fun turns to excess and alcoholism takes hold, things get serious. The American National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence defines alcoholism in the following pretty bleak terms:

“Alcoholism is a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychological, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortion in thinking, most notably denial.”

Alcoholism in the Workplace  

Watching an employee or work colleague struggle with alcoholism is painful and stressful for all those involved. Not only will this individual be damaging their own life, but their addiction will impact their ability to do their job properly and in some circumstances may lead to disciplinary action and even dismissal.

Colleagues may face the uncomfortable dilemma of deciding whether or not to report their concerns to management. Friendships can be strong within a team and going to management may feel like an act of disloyalty, even if they resent having had to take up any slack the individual concerned has created. If a fellow worker is putting the rest of the team in danger, however, they must take action – whilst it is not the responsibility of an employee to diagnose a substance abuse (including alcohol) problem in a colleague, they do have an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act to report any safety concerns

Employers must act as soon as they believe an employee has a problem, not least because employers have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Unsurprisingly, in the transport industry, there is additional legislation in place regarding the misuse of alcohol (and drugs).

And beyond the legal considerations, both employer and work colleagues may wonder how best to help the alcoholic employee.

How to spot a possible alcoholic at work

Just because a co-worker is behaving unusually does not necessarily mean that they are an alcoholic. There can be many reasons why the individual may start to perform poorly at work and substance abuse is just one possible reason. There are, however, signs that point to the likelihood of alcoholism, and these include:

* Frequent hangovers – the individual may have red eyes most mornings and appear a bit unwell;

* Physical signs of alcohol withdrawals – the most common of these are “the shakes”;

* Unkempt appearance – as well as frequently smelling of booze, as alcohol takes over the individual’s life he/she can lose interest in taking care of their grooming, their clothes can look unclean and wrinkled, and their personal hygiene may suffer;

* Irrational Behaviour – he/she may act in a paranoid fashion and suffer from frequent mood changes;

* An obsession with alcohol – he/she may enjoy talking about their drinking exploits and not seem to have many other interests;

* Temper outbursts – alcoholics often find it difficult to control their emotions and can become angry at the slightest provocation; they may not be able to handle stress as well as they once did;

* Reduced productivity – as addiction takes over, the individual may show up for work less frequently, seem to ‘disappear’ from their work area for prolonged periods of time, and when he/she is working they are less productive than they once were;

* Secretive and dishonest behaviour – the individual will try to hide the evidence of his/her addiction by being guarded or by outright lying; he/she may try to hide the symptoms of their alcohol abuse by wearing sunglasses, or eating mints to mask the smell of the booze;

* Increased negativity – alcohol abuse can lead to symptoms of depression, and the addict may develop a general negative attitude and may even become suicidal.

Obviously, some of these symptoms could also be a sign of other emotional, mental, or personal problems, but a combination of them is a good indication of alcohol or drug abuse.

Dealing with an employee with a possible alcohol problem

Helping an alcoholic can be difficult if they are in denial about their problem, as is often the case. The individual may react defensively and angrily to any suggestions that their drinking is out of control. Ignoring the problem though will only prolong the misery for everyone involved.

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends a simple approach:

·         Step 1 – Find out if there is a problem

·         Step 2 – Decide what to do

·         Step 3 – Take action

Taking action

Supervisors and other managers need to be clear about company rules and what to do if they suspect employees’ drinking is affecting their work. They also need to be aware of the implications of not tackling possible alcohol misuse, especially where safety is an issue. Many companies have a Policy that describes the company’s position on employees’ drinking and how it will be dealt with. A written Alcohol Policy or section within the Contract of Employment has many advantages, for example leaving less room for misunderstanding than an informal ‘understanding’; it does not have to be a long or complicated document.

Confronting the individual with concerns about their behavior should be done in a non-judgmental and non-accusatory manner where only facts are presented. As well as mentioning the causes of concern, it is also helpful to offer possible solutions.  Remember that employees with a drink problem have the same rights to confidentiality and support as they would if they had any other medical or psychological condition.  Disciplinary action should be a last resort. A court may find a dismissal unfair if an employer has made no attempt to help an employee whose work problems are related to drinking alcohol.

It may be very difficult for people to admit to themselves or others that their drinking is out of control. They need to know that their drinking problem will be treated as a health problem rather than an immediate cause for disciplinary action or dismissal. If an employee’s drinking is a matter of concern, he/she should be encouraged to seek help from their GP or a specialist alcohol agency such as Alcohol Concern. For more help for employees experiencing drug and alcohol addiction, contact Rehab 4 Addiction. 

The cost of recruiting and training a replacement may be greater than the cost of allowing someone time off https://www.rehab4addiction.co.uk/to obtain expert help.  Many people with an alcohol problem are able in time to regain full control over their drinking and return to their previous work performance.

If you would like to include or update an Alcohol Policy in your Handbook and/or specific clauses in your Contracts of Employment, please contact us on 01582 883299.

Helen Skepper – Research and Communications Advisor
Su Allen HR