How to Carefully Address Alcoholism in the Workplace

Whenever a new employee starts a job, personnel managers privately hope they’ve adequately screened the person. Hiring workers has become a much more complex task now that so many qualified professionals move freely between long-term positions, the “gig economy” and periods of self-employment.

Finding productive employees is also hard because many people who suffer from alcoholism or “alcohol use disorders” have learned various ways to try and hide their problems.

What exactly is alcoholism or “alcohol use disorder?”

The Mayo Clinic website states that people who experience “repeated significant stress and problems functioning” in their daily life due to drinking, usually suffer from alcohol use disorder.

Those attempting to cope with this daily disorder also struggle with increased drinking in hopes of obtaining the same “high” that helps them escape their emotional pain. Over time, many alcoholics find it hard to even quit thinking about alcohol. Still others stay busy with “binge drinking” spells — or the physical and psychological problems that occur during withdrawal.

Some larger companies have employee assistance programs that can readily offer counseling and other services to workers struggling with addictions and other psychological problems. However, there will always be many workers who remain in denial about their critical drinking problems — and small businesses who simply cannot afford to provide a wide array of special services to their workers.

What follows is a brief review of American alcohol abuse statistics, a list of signs that workers may have drinking problems – and a look at how employers can try to reach out and help employees with apparent alcohol use disorders.

What statistics tell us about alcohol abuse in America

  • Well over 12 million adults struggle with alcoholism. In fact, one 2018 study revealed that 14.4 million adults (at least 18 years of age or older) were battling alcohol use disorder (AUD). Approximately 9.2 million of these individuals were men and 4.1 percent were women.
  • Heavy use and binge drinking are also common. This same 2018 study noted that when adults age 18 or older were asked about their drinking during the prior month, 6.6 percent of them said they were heavy drinkers. And 26.45 percent of them admitted to binge drinking during the past 30 days.
  • Every year, about 88,000 people die of alcohol-related causes.

As these statistics indicate, every business surely has more than a few problem drinkers. And experts estimate that lost productively due to alcoholism can cost American employers between $33 billion and $68 billion each year.

Common signs that employees may have drinking problems affecting their work

  • Repeated, unexplained absences from work
  • Ongoing tardiness
  • Frequent use of sick leave
  • Too many absences occurring the day after payday – or a pattern of taking too many three-day weekends
  • Falling asleep on the job
  • Moody behavior and difficulty getting along with other employees
  • Bloodshot eyes, an unsteady gait – and the faint smell of alcohol
  • Claims of too many sudden “emergencies” during relatively short timeframes
  • A steady stream of assignments finished late
  • Incomplete assignments or clear signs of inadequate effort
  • Ongoing problems with meeting assigned sales or other quotas

How should employers address one or more of these problem behaviors?

  1. You will need to schedule a private meeting with the employee. Prior to this meeting, you should review all recent employee work evaluations and privately talk with the person’s supervisor (who may also want to attend the meeting). Be sure to take notes. Also, make it clear that you’ll be checking back with the employee at a later (specific) date to see if their work and/or attendance record is improving.
  2. If your company has an EAP (employee assistance program), meet with your personal representative of that program prior to the meeting referenced above. It may be necessary to schedule some type of intervention with the employee, after that person is given ample notice of the meeting. This event (which should probably be managed by your EAP contact) can include the person’s workplace supervisor, spouse, clergy or other family members. All who attend must indicate that they’re simply trying to help the person improve their health and keep their job.
  3. In some cases, you are likely to meet up with an employee’s denial. If so, you must still make a referral to your EAP — or remind the person to obtain this type of outside help on his or her own if your company doesn’t provide EAP resources. You must also clearly state that if one or two more unexplained absences (or poor work performance reports) are received, the employee will be terminated. Be sure to have at least one other company official present during such meetings and keep detailed, confidential notes.
  4. You must be prepared to tell an employee who appears to be intoxicated at work to stop working immediately. This is especially true if the person is driving a work vehicle or handling potentially dangerous equipment. You may also have want them to take an evidentiary breath testing (EBT) device.

Employers should avoid taking the following steps when alcoholism may be present

  • Covering up for an employee with a drinking problem
  • Loaning money to the person with alcoholism
  • Helping the tardy employee make up assignments later, instead of disciplining him/her
  • Requiring co-workers to complete the apparent alcoholic’s assigned work
  • Allow a spouse to call in absences for the employee

Hopefully, the problem drinker will respond to your outreach efforts, agree to a temporary term of leave and then follow-up care. If all goes well, this person will then be able to carry a normal workload again. While this is always a very difficult problem to handle, it’s important to remember that those who do recover from an alcohol abuse disorder may one day become your most loyal employees, grateful that you gave them a chance to fully address their problems.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys when you need help deciding how to respond to this type of employment law issue. Our office also remains available to help you draft any contracts or other documents you may need while running your business.

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