The Tremendous Effect of Drinking on the Workplace

The use of alcohol or other drugs can have a tremendous effect on both an individual’s personal and work life. When someone you care about is abusing a drug, it is difficult to watch this individual destroy relationships and job security. It can be risky to bring these issues to someone’s attention, but it may also be what the person needs to help them begin to make some changes.

Roughly 14 million Americans – or about one in every 13 adults – abuse alcohol or are alcoholics. Throw in the percentage of people who are using illicit drugs exclusively, and the problem clearly is significant.

By occupation, the highest rates of alcohol or other drug use occur in the following fields, many of which are dominated by men: construction, automobile repair, food preparation, truck drivers, and laborers.

The lowest rates are found in the following jobs: data clerks, personnel specialists, administrative assistants, teachers, childcare workers, and police officers and detectives.

Common Drinking Problems
The following are the most common types of drinking problems:

Binge drinking – This is typically defined as the consumption of five or more drinks at one sitting for men, and three or more drinks at one sitting for women. Binge drinking is most common among young adults 18-21.

Alcohol abuse – Abuse often results in impaired performance on the job, neglect of childcare or other responsibilities, legal difficulties, and alcohol consumption in dangerous circumstances such as while driving.

Alcohol dependence – This is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes a strong need to drink despite repeated social or interpersonal problems such as losing a job or deteriorating relationships with friends, family, and co-workers. Alcohol dependence – or alcoholism – is the most severe alcohol problem and is characterized by three of the seven symptoms listed below, over a one-year period:

Neglect of activities – Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are eliminated or reduced because of alcohol use.
Excessive use – Alcohol is consumed in larger amounts over a longer period than intended.
Impaired control – Ongoing, unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol consumption.
Persistent use – Alcohol consumption is continued despite having a persistent or recurrent physical psychological problem that is likely caused or made worse by alcohol.
Large amounts of time spent in alcohol-related activities – A great deal of time is spent in activities to obtain, use, or recover from the effects of alcohol.
Withdrawal – Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety are present when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking.
Tolerance – This is the need for increasing amounts of alcohol in order to feel its effects.

The Workplace Suffers in Significant Ways
But isn’t alcohol use a personal issue? Actually, a drinking or drug abuse problem may have a significant effect on a workplace. According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a leading treatment center and recovery community, one-third of employees thought a co-worker’s job performance was affected by drug or alcohol abuse.

Co-workers may feel compassion for the individual and cover for him, especially at first, but ultimately they may come to resent this person. Interestingly, co-workers are not likely to bring up the subject with the individual. In fact, Hazelden Betty Ford reported that fewer than one in five had discussed the problem with the employee and his or her manager or supervisor.

This doesn’t mean that supervisors don’t have a clue what is going on. According to a Hazelden Betty Ford workplace addiction survey, over 60% of HR professionals said they believe addiction significantly affects employees in their workplaces.

In fact, the National Institute on Health estimates that alcohol use costs companies $27 billion annually in lost productivity, and some estimates are even higher than that. Put another way, CEOs estimate that the use of alcohol and other drugs cost them 1% to 10% of payroll.

Alcohol also has a tremendous impact on individuals. For instance, the non-alcoholic family of an alcoholic employee use 10 times as much sick leave as families in which alcoholism is not present. In addition, individuals with alcoholism or other drinking problems suffer lost wages ranging from 1.5% to nearly 19% compared to non-drinkers. Alcohol also plays a role in nearly half (41%) of traffic fatalities and 50% of homicides.

Signs and Symptoms
Despite the problems that alcohol and other drugs can cause in the workplace, there remains a surprising lack of information about steps that can be taken to help resolve the situation. For example, over half (54%) of respondents to the previously mentioned survey reported not knowing how to identify addiction.

It should be pointed out that work performance, not the clinical diagnosis of a drinking or other drug abuse problem, is the responsibility of the manager or supervisor. A key part of every supervisor’s job is to remain alert to changes in employee performance and to work with the employee.

Therefore, the following signs and symptoms should only be considered as guidelines to a possible alcohol or other drug problem – not as proof. Conclusions should always be based on facts, not assumptions.

Performance
• Increase in mistakes or inconsistency in quality of work;
• Poor concentration;
• Decrease in productivity;
• Increased absenteeism;
• Unexplained disappearances from work;
• Poor judgment;
• Increased risk taking;
• Disregard for safety;
• Extended lunch and other breaks; and
• Leaving work early.

Behavior
• Financial problems;
• Avoiding family, friends, and co-workers;
• Complaints about personal problems;
• Deterioration in physical appearance;
• Changes in attitude;
• Borrowing money from friends or co-workers;
• Stealing items from work or friends;
• Vague physical complaints; and
• Association with known drug users.

Additional Signs of Possible Alcohol Abuse:
• Odor on breath;
• Difficulty focusing, glazed eyes;
• Uncharacteristically passive behavior;
• Combative or argumentative behavior;
• Unexplained bruises and accidents;
• Absence on Mondays;
• Irritability;
• Flushed skin and slurred speech;
• Loss of memory or blackouts;
• Impaired personal relationships;
• Consumption of alcohol becomes main point of social and professional activities; and
• Drinking alcohol to get over a hangover.

Accessing Treatment
Even if the individual and his or her supervisor are aware of drinking or other drug problems, directing the employee into treatment is yet another barrier. More than one third (36%) of respondents to the previously mentioned survey said they don’t know how to get treatment. This is surprising since most (89%) of survey respondents believe that addiction treatment programs are effective in helping employees beat addiction. What can be done to help bridge this gap? The following are some ideas:

Don’t assume that the individual will seek treatment. Surveys reveal that many employees won’t seek treatment on their own. One possible reason lies in the fact that men typically derive a great deal of their self-esteem from work. As a result, many men will try to keep any work-related problem a secret. Therefore, it’s important that the employees know that help is available. Ask something like, “Can I tell you about EAP benefits?”

Increase awareness. Do managers and supervisors understand that EAPs are available to help employees with addiction problems? Tell them what the EAP is about and how it can help. (Editor’s note: In some cases, it may be the manager or supervisor with an addiction problem. The EAP can frequently help in these situations as well.)

Use absenteeism as an opportunity to speak with the employee. Since absenteeism is common with addicted employees, take advantage of this opportunity to confront the individual in a straightforward, yet caring manner. Ask questions such as: “You don’t look well. Are you seeing anyone about it?” Or you might try, “Your productivity has really slipped lately. This is serious.”

Is Treatment Too Expensive?
Let’s assume you’ve identified an employee with an alcohol or other substance abuse problem, and he or she is willing to seek treatment. What then? It’s crucial to note that as opposed to firing the individual, treatment can actually save companies money.

The Chevron corporation estimates that it saves $10 for every dollar it spends to treat employees with substance abuse problems. Then, of course, there is the high cost to employers caused by lost productivity, absenteeism, etc. Treatment also benefits society. Before treatment, roughly 37% of patients report having been arrested, but after treatment, the number drops substantially, to about 6%.

“People sometimes make bad decisions, but if they have the right skill sets and work ethic, they could be an asset to a business if they get professional help,” notes Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Montgomery County, Ohio.

The Case of ‘Kate’
Kate (who asked that her last name not be used to protect her identity), was an alcoholic who abused cocaine and marijuana when she worked for an auto manufacturer in Ohio in the 1980s and 1990s.

She said what started off as a drink at lunch escalated to a point where she operated vehicles and machinery drunk. She wrecked company property. She started leaving for lunch and not returning. Her work attendance was terrible, and her job performance suffered.

Kate, a former addict who has sober for nearly 20 years, said companies should support employees who want to get help for substance abuse. She sought help from her company’s EAP, which helps workers with drug abuse and other personal problems. She was able to overcome her addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous and other support programs.

Summary
Alcohol has a huge impact on individuals’ lives and companies’ bottom lines. Organizations that haven’t addressed the issue need to do so, and businesses that have should reassess what they’re doing to ensure that their programs and/or policies are working. In either case, the EAP is in a perfect position to help.

Additional sources: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers; and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Source: July 2017 EA Report Brown Bagger (Employee Assistance Report, Vol. 20 No. 7, July 2017)

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