Alcoholism in the Workplace

A report found that work-related alcohol misuse costs the UK economy between £5.1 billion and £6.4 billion a year. [1]

In Northern Ireland, alcoholism is thought to be responsible for 3-5% of all workplace absences, translating to around £2.38 million in cost to businesses. [2]

Commonly Affected Professions

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While there is no definite statistic to determine the occupations most impacted by alcoholism, it is well-understood how widely the condition has a negative influence.

The professions commonly affected include:

  • Doctors, nurses, and other medical staff
  • Entertainers and artists
  • Hospitality workers
  • Barristers and legal assistants
  • Construction workers
  • Police officers
  • Soldiers and military workers

While alcoholism can develop for an array of personal reasons, an individual’s job might contribute if it is high-stress and demands high standards. Individuals can turn to alcohol as a way to cope with this kind of pressure on their minds and body.

How does Alcoholism Impact a Workplace?

Not only does alcoholism impact individuals on a physical and emotional level, but it also has consequences for the workplace in general. These include:

  • Increased risk of accident or injury, particularly when a workplace requires the use of machinery for heavy lifting
  • Dampened morale when other workers feel let down or irritated by the addicted individual’s behaviour
  • Potential damage to a company’s reputation or relationships with clients
  • Cluttered workspace or a general decline in workplace hygiene
  • Misplaced blame, resulting in other workers potentially needing to work overtime in order to make up for reduced productivity
  • Reduced profits, resulting either from higher production costs or reduced business

Spotting Signs of Alcoholism in the Workplace

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Because of how devastating alcoholism can be in the workplace, it is important to be able to recognise the warning signs of a co-worker being the victim of the condition.

1. The ‘Monday blues’

There are several clear signs that indicate when a co-worker has spent their weekend drinking. They are often the more obvious symptoms of a hangover, including a sensitivity to light, irritability, and nausea.

However, if a co-worker consistently demonstrates this kind of behaviour, it could indicate that they have a drinking problem.

2. Appearance and attitude

When a co-worker drinks a lot, it will start becoming evident in their appearance. They might take less care in how they dress, carry the smell of alcohol, and walk unsteadily.

Over time, long-term changes might manifest like bloodshot eyes.

Along with this physical evidence, changes can occur in how co-workers interact with others. They might become more irritable, have angry spells, and become increasingly disengaged in conversations.

3. Absence from the office

One of the most common signs of alcoholism is isolation. In the workplace, this usually manifests in regular absences. Affected individuals are late more often, use sick leave more, and are more likely to be absent without explanation.

They can also disappear for large portions of the day. It is important to take note of when these absences/disappearances take place, as Mondays and Fridays (as well as after payday) are signs that alcohol is involved.

4. Decreased work performance

Alcohol impacts how well individuals function and carry out their responsibilities. In the workplace, this can be one of the most obvious signs of alcoholism.

Co-workers can take unusually long to complete tasks, miss deadlines altogether, sleep during working hours, or produce work of lower quality.

5. Alcohol in the workplace

One of the biggest signs of alcoholism, though also one of the toughest to spot, is when co-workers bring alcohol into the workplace. They might hide it in an opaque container, or pass it off as another drink.

6. Withdrawal symptoms

While the signs of withdrawal can range from person to person, there are common symptoms that individuals experience when sober. A co-worker might be struggling with alcoholism if they, for example, experience shaking, sweating, heart problems, or anxiety.

What Should You Do?

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When you spot the signs of alcoholism in a co-worker, it can be a daunting situation to find yourself in. You might feel the best course of action is to talk to the individual directly – not wanting to involve others in fear of upsetting them – but this is not advised.

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), employers have a duty of care for their employees, and this means that they must be prepared to support anyone who finds themselves struggling with alcoholism.

The HSE clarifies that every workplace should have a policy prepared in order to effectively deal with supporting employees in this scenario. For this reason, the best course of action when identifying alcoholism is to make your superiors aware.

The policy of a workplace will then be triggered. Employers might then, for example, ensure that the individual is relieved of their duties or transferred to a position that does not put them at risk – especially when that employee uses machinery or does the heavy lifting. [3]

Going forward, the relevant staff will try to approach the individual about their dangerous behaviour and offer them support in terms of accessing alcohol rehab.

What to Do if You are an Employer

Every workplace will have its own policy to deal with alcoholism in the workplace, but there are a number of things that can be done in order to make the process of supporting that individual and steering them in the right direction a smoother process.

  • Private conversations – If approaching an employee about their alcohol use, be sure to do so in private, away from other workers. This will prevent them from feeling embarrassed and increase the odds of them being honest.
  • Prepare evidence – Because denial is so common with addiction [4], be sure to have examples of tardiness, low work quality, and alcohol use to demonstrate to an employee how their behaviour is becoming evident in the workplace.
  • Adopt the right tone – Accusing an employee of alcohol use will only provoke an aggressive, defensive response. Instead, ask questions in the tone of wanting to know more, and try to start an open conversation about what support they need.
  • Let them speak – Instead of controlling a conversation, allow an employee to speak freely about what they think is important. Eventually, this will get to the heart of their problem.
  • Offer a way forward – When approaching an employee, you must be prepared to offer them an opportunity to improve their situation. Before speaking to them, confer with the HR department of your workplace and plan how to help.

The Benefits of Tackling Workplace Alcoholism

It is not simply the well-being of an employee that is protected when alcoholism in the workplace is properly addressed. Doing so also reaps the following rewards:

  • Reduces the risk of accidents in the workplace
  • Makes other employees feel safer in the workplace
  • Creates a more open, supportive working environment
  • Makes other employees feel as though they can be honest about their own personal struggles
  • Reduces the likelihood of similar problems developing to the same extent in future
  • Improves the image and morale of a workplace

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