Drinking on the Job: Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace

Part of the Complete Guide to Understanding Addiction

Table of Contents
  1. Alcoholism in America
  2. Impact of drug and alcohol abuse on coworkers
  3. What should you do if a colleague is drinking on the job?
  4. How to spot alcoholism in the workplace
  5. Cost of alcohol and drug use to employers
  6. Addressing alcohol in the workplace
  7. Prevention measures you can take
  8. Risk factors
  9. Professions most at risk
  10. Bottom Line

Alcoholism in America

The term “alcoholic” often conjures images that imply negative characteristics like unemployment, poor hygiene, broken relationships, and so forth. But With 14 million Americans meeting the alcohol use disorder criteria, this image encompasses very few of the individuals actually suffering from alcoholism. Many alcoholics work regularly and have extracurricular activities outside of the home. For a while, many can maintain the facade of a balanced life and control over their drinking. In fact, this is such a widespread phenomenon that it has earned its own name: Functional Alcoholism. Unfortunately, their alcohol use inevitably spills over into their workplaces, disrupting their coworker relationships, safety, and job performance.

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Impact of Drugs and Alcohol Abuse on Coworkers

Some individuals with alcohol dependence may find it possible to keep their sober and inebriated lives separate. Unfortunately for most, there is an inevitable spillover that not only impacts the individual and their families, but their coworkers and businesses as well.

The impact of alcoholism on coworkers ranges greatly, depending on the individual’s position and dependence on others. Drug and alcohol use in the workplace affects coworkers greatly from a mental, physical, and emotional standpoint, yet this potential situation is often ignored and left without guidance.

Coworkers are often left picking up slack and fixing the mistakes of those who were either unable to complete their work, or did so inadequately due to intoxication or side effects of a hangover. Alcoholics who work at jobs more physical in nature may also be at risk of injury not only to themselves, but to coworkers as well. Relationships at work can become strained, short-tempered, and argumentative.

What should you do if a colleague is drinking on the job?

Employees that suspect another coworker is consuming alcohol while at work or may be dealing with alcoholism should be wary of covering for the individual. Workplace alcoholism is a complex issue, but covering for a struggling colleague will only enable them to further pursue their addiction. It is never the answer.

Let them know that you will support them unconditionally should they pursue sobriety, but state clearly that you will not protect them from the ramifications of their actions at work. If you are concerned that confronting your coworker, even with respect, will be offensive or confrontational, it is best to speak to a supervisor or human resources employee. Regardless of whether you speak to the individual first, alcohol use in the workplace should be reported.

Signs of Alcohol Use in the Workplace

Red flags to look for in determining if an employee is at risk or taking part in alcohol while on the job include lack of coordination, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, poor work performance, nausea, frequent absences, irritability, and lack of care. These individuals may make poor decisions and display slow reaction time, which can result in injury and insufficient outcomes.

Cost of Alcohol and Drug Use to Employers

Alcoholism in the workplace has a financial impact as well. The approximate cost of drug and alcohol use in the workplace in the United States is $160 billion dollars annually due to accidents, lost productivity, and alcohol-related problems.

The total cost on individual companies is around $7,000 dollars a year for many of the same reasons. Alcoholics are 33 percent less productive due to their alcohol use. There are programs that can combat alcohol use in the workplace, and individuals diagnosed with AUD may qualify for assistance under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The most common exception made for alcoholics under ADA is the ability to miss work for alcohol addiction-related treatment. However, even this necessary intervention will inevitably result in lost time and productivity for the company and added work for coworkers.

Addressing Alcohol in the Workplace

Alcohol use is a decision made by individuals on their own, and not one an employer can govern when outside of the workplace. Such matters are personal. However, once alcohol use interferes with an employee’s ability to adequately perform their duties, and/or causes safety concerns, the employer can step in and take action.

Businesses usually deal with alcohol use in the workplace via their human resources department. Employers should monitor employees suspected of alcohol use at work and intervene through corrective or disciplinary action, or referral to their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for help.

With as many as 1 in 13 adults meeting the criteria of alcoholic , employers should be protective in implementing procedures in the event a staff member has this issue. Employers should view this as protecting not only their business, but their employees’ best interest as well.

Alcohol Prevention in the Workplace

A major way employers can address alcohol use both inside and outside of the workplace is by making alcohol abuse prevention part of their employee wellness program. Considering that most companies employ adults, the workplace may be an excellent place to address alcohol abuse. Through making this form of training available and in some cases mandatory, the employer may be able to indirectly address concerns for specific employees.

Risk Factors Associated with Alcohol in the Workplace

Risk factors for workplace alcohol abuse vary greatly from minor inconveniences to death, making it imperative to take such a situation seriously. Aside from obvious risks such as injury and death, other risks include health complications, loss of income, health concerns, and loss of future hireability.

These risks do not begin and end with the individual drinking on the job, but with coworkers as well. On-the-job injuries are a real threat for those working alongside an intoxicated coworker, and its mental toll can be significant. This is aside from the strain of bearing the burden of incomplete or inaccurate work thanks to peers lagging due to alcohol abuse.

Professions Most at Risk

Some employees are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder and bring it into the workplace. Bartenders are 2.33 times more likely to develop AUD and subsequently die from alcohol related deaths. Roofers, painters, and other construction-related jobs are 1.87 to 1.72 times more likely to be affected by alcohol abuse.

High-stress jobs also place people at risk for developing alcohol dependence, including lawyers, doctors, and air traffic controllers. These are also careers where workplace alcohol abuse can cause significant damage to oneself and others, beyond coworkers or businesses.

Employees whose jobs require them to be isolated due to the nature of work are at increased risk for alcohol abuse as well. They are not only alone – which can lead to depression and alcohol abuse – but they also may lack accountability for their drinking on the job.

Some worksites and careers have a culture or subculture of alcohol use, where drinking is a norm and accountability for responsible drinking is low. These workplaces range from bartenders to executives discussing business over drinks.

Bottom Line

Employers have a definite role in monitoring and addressing alcohol use in the workplace. This issue is becoming increasingly common, and appropriate training is warranted. Employees who believe their coworkers may be drinking on the job or coming to work still intoxicated can attempt to offer support to their coworkers, but should never feel inhibited to address the issue with their human resources department or supervisor.  By addressing alcoholism in the workplace, you are protecting not only the struggling individual but yourself, their families and the lives of others who may be impacted by their alcohol abuse.

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