Roughly 15 million people in the U.S. have drinking problems severe enough to merit a diagnosis of alcohol addiction (alcoholism) or serious, non-addicted alcohol abuse. In addition, millions more Americans who don’t qualify for this diagnosis still drink excessively from time to time. In the workplace, alcoholism, alcohol abuse and excessive drinking are fairly common. In turn, drinking on the job can lead to a host of problems for the affected person, that person’s employer and society as a whole. A range of telltale signs may indicate the presence of an alcohol-impaired co-worker or employee.
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How Common Is Alcohol in the Workplace?
Periodically, a federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) collects statistics on alcohol use in the workplace. This data includes information on heavy alcohol use. SAMHSA’s latest figures show that almost 9 percent of America’s full-time workers drink heavily on the job at least once a month. However, the rate of problem drinking varies significantly from industry to industry. The industries with the highest rates of heavy-drinking employees include:
- Mining (17 percent affected)
- Construction (16 percent affected)
- Food services and accommodations (11.8 percent affected)
- Entertainment, arts, and recreation (11.5 percent affected)
The industries with the lowest rates of heavy-drinking employees include:
- Insurance and finance (7.4 percent affected)
- Public administration (6.6 percent affected)
- Educational services (4.7 percent affected)
- Social assistance and healthcare (4.4 percent affected)
Alcohol use is in decline in some industries and on the increase in others.
The Impact of Drinking Alcohol at Work
Every year, alcohol use in the U.S. leads to expenditures that total hundreds of billions of dollars. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that lost workplace productivity accounts for more than 70 percent of this tremendous social cost, with a price tag of roughly $179 billion annually. One of the main effects of alcohol in the workplace is an increased rate of absenteeism. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management estimates that people affected by alcoholism and clinical alcohol abuse fail to show up for work roughly four to eight times more often than their counterparts without diagnosable drinking problems. Close relatives of alcoholics also have a higher-than-average absenteeism rate.
Over the past several decades, numerous studies have pointed to the link between alcoholism, alcohol abuse and workplace injury. Compared to non-drinkers, people who consume alcohol may have as much as a 70 percent higher chance of being injured on the job. Even light drinking can lead to increased risk. However, the regular, excessive drinking associated with diagnosable alcohol problems takes a much heavier toll. Almost certainly, workplace injuries help explain the nationwide costs of alcohol-related healthcare. The CDC estimates that such costs are in the range of $28 billion a year.
Signs of Alcoholism at Work
No one can tell for certain from mere observation if a co-worker or employee is suffering from alcoholism or alcohol abuse. However, there is a range of potential signs, which fall into four main categories:
- Workplace behavior
- Job performance
- Job attendance
- Workplace relationships
The list of possible behaviors highlighted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management include:
- Smelling like alcohol
- Walking with an unsteady gait
- Unexplained changes in mood/behavior
- Having bloodshot eyes
- Sleeping while at work
- Repeatedly using mints or mouthwash
- Avoiding supervisors
Potential performance-related indicators include things such as:
- Failing to meet established production quotas
- Missing assignment deadlines
- Making faulty assessments of workplace problems
- An unexplained decline in work quality
- Use of multiple excuses to explain workplace deficiencies
Possible attendance-related indicators include:
- Frequent lateness
- Frequent use of sick leave
- Frequent absenteeism
- Certain patterns of absenteeism (e.g., on Fridays, Mondays or in the aftermath of payday)
- Unexplained disappearances while at work
Relationship problems linked to alcohol use on the job include:
- Withdrawal from contact with other co-workers or employees
- Frequent tense or strained interactions with others
- Outbursts of aggression or belligerence toward others
Responding to Signs of Alcohol Problems
There are several potential responses to alcohol problems in the workplace. Some employers provide intervention through employee assistance programs (EAP) designed to help resolve a wide range of personal issues, including abuse/addiction. As a rule, these programs are staffed by professional counselors who suggest appropriate courses of action. Companies that lack EAP resources may rely on human resources (HR) departments to assist.
An EAP counselor or HR representative may ask an alcoholic or alcohol-abusing employee to enroll in a substance program. While receiving treatment, employees typically receive approved leave. Upon completing treatment, they can return to work without facing any repercussions. Follow-up care may be provided in the form of periodic counseling or enrollment in a mutual self-help group.
Supervisors who fail to respond to potential signs of alcoholism or alcohol abuse can end up enabling people affected by these conditions. Actions that may help prolong the problem include such things as:
- Hiding an employee’s alcohol-impaired behavior
- Making excuses for an employee’s alcohol-impaired behavior
- Transferring an employee’s responsibilities to others
- Failing to alert HR or an EAP counselor to the presence of a potential problem
- Trying to provide informal counseling instead of relying on available professionals
The Cost of Workplace Alcohol Consumption
Alcoholism, clinical alcohol abuse, and heavy drinking are serious problems at companies and businesses throughout America. Every year, the nation’s employers lose tens of billions of dollars in productivity for alcohol-related reasons. In addition, people who drink on the job have much higher chances of missing work and experiencing work-related injuries. Fortunately, awareness of the signs of alcohol problems can help prevent accidents and other types of workplace incidents. People who receive proper treatment can recover their sobriety and return to a productive working life.