How Alcoholism Affects the Workplace: A Guide for Employers

More than 25 million adults in England regularly drink alcohol. According to Public Health England statistics, drinkers are more likely to be in employment than non-drinkers. As a consequence, the effects of overconsumption are likely to be felt in the workplace. 

Employees may go to work hungover or still under the influence. Some may consume alcohol before work or during the day. As little as one alcoholic drink can impair judgement and affect concentration. Most people are neither aware of the number of units they consume nor the length of time it takes for the body to process alcohol. 

Alcoholism in the workplace has a negative impact on employers, colleagues and working relationships. Although this is potentially damaging, the work environment can actually be a good place to identify an issue and initiate support to overcome it.

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The workplace has its part to play

While bearing the impact of alcohol abuse, it’s important to remember that the workplace can also be a contributing factor. A workplace problem with alcohol misuse could be indicative of a wider, institutionalised culture. From the stress implications of bad management practices and excessive performance demands to a cultural attitude that promotes alcohol consumption, there are several factors that can influence an employee’s drinking habits. 

Work plays a significant role in most people’s lives. Some jobs may be physically demanding, while others are mentally draining. Work has an impact on an individual’s overall well-being. What happens in the workplace can spill over into an individual’s private life, resulting in physical or mental stress that can be difficult to cope with. An inability to cope or the desire to unwind may leave many reaching for the bottle. A YouGov poll found that 27% of people questioned believed that workplace stress makes them drink more.

According to the World Health Organisation Europe, workers in certain industries are more likely to become heavy or dependent drinkers than others. Many workplace cultures actually encourage drinking. Whether through organised corporate entertainment or informal socialising, consuming alcohol is often promoted as the norm and is often made freely available.

The effects of alcohol misuse on the workplace

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there are no statistics on the number of workplace accidents attributable to alcohol consumption. However, the fact that being under the influence impairs judgement and concentration is undeniable. From operating heavy equipment to working with hazardous materials, reduced reaction times and poor co-ordination increase the risk of accident and injury.

Drinking not only increases the possibility of harm, it also adversely affects productivity. From poor decision-making to confrontational behaviour, alcohol use reduces work performance which has a knock-on effect on business operations.

According to Public Health England, lost productivity due to alcohol use costs the UK economy more than £7 billion annually. The burden of employees’ alcohol misuse is often keenly felt by colleagues. Co-workers may feel obligated to accept additional responsibilities, put in longer hours and pick up the slack for the poor performance, lateness and absenteeism of their colleagues.

The signs and symptoms of alcohol misuse

While some warning signs can be symptomatic of other issues, such as stress or depression, there are a number of behavioural, psychological and physical signs that point to alcohol misuse.

Alcohol and Drug Addiction Warning Signs

1. Behaviour at Work

Very often, an employee’s behaviour will be at odds with their usual conduct. It may begin to take someone noticeably longer to complete routine tasks or they may make more frequent mistakes. From difficulty recalling details to trouble following instructions, a deterioration in performance may be one of the first signs.

2. Appearance and Hygiene Issues

Alcohol consumption will become an addict’s overriding concern. If an employee’s appearance is unkempt or obvious changes in personal hygiene occur, alarm bells should sound.

3. Behaviour changes at Work

Many people who misuse alcohol will want to disguise it from their colleagues. You may notice an individual becoming increasingly secretive, less talkative and less willing to engage with others. 

4. Difficulty in relationships at Work

Long-term substance abuse has been linked to a reduction in self-control and emotional regulation. This can leave an individual vulnerable to volatile emotions. This imbalance in brain chemistry can result in feelings of agitation, aggressive behaviour or depression.

How to help an employee with an alcohol problem

The health and safety implications of alcohol use at work are severe. Employers have a duty of care to their employees. A drug and alcohol policy will help to ensure an employer’s legal responsibilities for health, safety and employee welfare are met. A written policy leaves little room for misunderstanding; providing clear guidance and procedures that should be followed.

Traditionally, organisations would apply a zero-tolerance approach to alcohol misuse in the workplace. Today, more employers recognise the value in supporting staff with an alcohol problem. Judgement and reprisal drive addiction underground. If employees believe their circumstances will be handled sensitively and confidentially, they’ll be more inclined to seek help.

Employment protection legislation requires employers to treat substance dependence as a recognised medical issue, not as an immediate cause for dismissal. A staff member misusing alcohol has the same right to confidentiality and support as with any other physical or psychological condition. 

An employer or manager’s role is to work with an employee to improve their performance at work. If an employee or colleague has a suspected problem, it’s crucial to intervene in the appropriate capacity. 

Today, many employers are considering the financial and ethical questions surrounding the provision of long-term support. Choosing to offer an employee consistent support and continued employment not only improves that individual’s chances of recovery but also incurs fewer costs when compared to the associated expense of replacing them.

The Importance of Employee Rehabilitation

Treatment for substance misuse is not a one-size-fits-all programme. The level of intensity varies and agreeing on the right treatment plan ensures greater engagement. 

Residential rehab may be the appropriate choice. It can involve a medically-monitored detox to provide relief from alcohol withdrawal symptoms. This approach, combined with talking and behavioural therapies, can be effective in treating alcohol addiction.

Supporting an employee plays an important role in the road to recovery. Approaching addiction in a sensitive but professional manner can facilitate a swifter return to work and reintegration as a fully-functioning member of the team.

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10 Practical Signs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in your Employees

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More information for Employers

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Guide to Workplace Drug and Alcohol Policies in the UK