Alcoholism in the Workplace

Alcohol is the single most used and abused drug in America. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 14 million Americans (1 in every 13 adults) abuse alcohol or are alcoholics. Several million more adults engage in risky drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems. The costs to society in terms of lost productivity, health care costs, traffic accidents, and personal tragedies are staggering. 

Numerous studies and reports have been issued on the workplace costs of alcoholism and alcohol abuse, and they report costs that range from $33 billion to $68 billion per year. Alcohol is a major factor in injuries, both at home, at work, and on the road. Nearly half of all traffic fatalities involve alcohol. 

In the workplace, the costs of alcoholism and alcohol abuse manifest themselves in many different ways. Absenteeism is estimated to be 4 to 8 times greater among alcoholics and alcohol abusers. Other family members of alcoholics also have greater rates of absenteeism. Accidents and on-the-job injuries are far more prevalent among alcoholics and alcohol abusers.

In the workplace

When the use or abuse of alcohol interferes with the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties, the employer has legitimate concerns, including the proper performance of duties, health and safety issues, and employee conduct at the workplace.

 Supervisors have an important role in dealing with alcohol problems in the workplace. You have the day-to-day responsibility to monitor the work and on-the-job conduct of your employees. You are not responsible for diagnosing alcoholism in employees. Basic supervisory responsibilities include:

  • assigning, monitoring, reviewing, and appraising work and performance;
  • setting work schedules, approving or disapproving leave requests;
  • taking necessary corrective and disciplinary actions when performance or conduct problems surface; and
  • referring employees to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

At some point, you will likely encounter employees with problems related to alcohol in dealing with performance, conduct, and leave problems. In some cases, you may not know that there is an alcohol problem. In other cases, you may know, either because the employee admits to being an alcoholic, or the problem is self-evident. For example, an employee may become intoxicated while on the job or be arrested for drunk driving.

Your supervisor’s role is not to diagnose the alcohol problem but to exercise responsibility in dealing with the performance or conduct problem, hold the employee accountable, refer the employee to the EAP, and take any appropriate disciplinary action. 

The most effective way to get an alcoholic to deal with the problem is to make the alcoholic aware that his or her job is on the line and that he or she must get help and improve performance and conduct, or face serious consequences, including the possibility of losing his or her job.

Signs to Look for

 Leave and Attendance

  • Unexplained or unauthorized absences from work
  • Frequent tardiness
  • Excessive use of sick leave
  • Patterns of absence such as the day after payday or frequent Monday or Friday absences
  • Frequent unplanned absences due to “emergencies” (e.g., household repairs, car trouble, family emergencies, legal problems)

The employee may also be absent from his or her duty station without explanation or permission for significant periods of time.

Performance Problems

  • Missed deadlines
  • Careless or sloppy work or incomplete assignments
  • Production quotas not met
  • Many excuses for incomplete assignments or missed deadlines
  • Faulty analysis

In jobs requiring long-term projects or detailed analysis, an employee may be able to hide a performance problem for quite some time.

Relationships at Work

  • Relationships with co-workers may become strained
  • The employee may be belligerent, argumentative, or short-tempered, especially in the mornings or after weekends or holidays
  • The employee may become a “loner”

The employee may also have noticeable financial problems evidenced by borrowing money from other employees or receiving phone calls at work from creditors or collection companies.

Behavior at Work

The appearance of being inebriated or under the influence of alcohol might include:

  • The smell of alcohol
  • Staggering, or an unsteady gait
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Smell of alcohol on the breath
  • Mood and behavior changes such as excessive laughter and inappropriate loud talk
  • Excessive use of mouthwash or breath mints
  • Avoidance of supervisory contact, especially after lunch
  • Tremors
  • Sleeping on duty

Not any one of these signs means that an employee is an alcoholic. However, when there are performance and conduct problems coupled with any number of these signs, it is time to take steps so the employee can get help if it is needed.

Source: The U.S. Department of Personnel Management: www.opm.gov