Effects of Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace
More than 14 million people are estimated to meet criteria for an alcohol use disorder in the United States.1 With alcohol abuse being so prevalent in the U.S., it’s almost inevitable that the effects of problematic drinking sometimes spill over into American work environments. Alcohol abuse in a work environment can result in lost productivity, increased absenteeism, workplace injuries, and additional healthcare costs.2
Understanding the risks of using alcohol at work will help you address this issue if you encounter it. In this article, we will help you understand what to do if you encounter someone who is struggling with alcohol abuse in your workplace.
Signs and Symptoms of an Alcohol Use Disorder
Recognizing the signs that suggest an employee or coworker is struggling with alcoholism is imperative when deciding how to help them.
Someone who experiences or exhibits at least 2 of the following signs and symptoms within a 12-month period may meet the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD):3
- Using more alcohol than originally intended.
- Making unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop drinking.
- Spending a significant amount of time and resources locating, using, and recovering from alcohol use.
- Neglecting responsibilities at work or in the home as a result of alcohol use.
- Having increased interpersonal conflict due to the use of alcohol.
- Using alcohol in risky situations, such as while driving or operating heavy machinery.
- Giving up things someone used to enjoy, like sports or hobbies, in favor of using alcohol.
- Using alcohol even though someone knows it makes a medical condition worse, such as having liver disease and still drinking. Or, using alcohol despite knowing it makes a mental health condition, such as depression, worse.
- Developing increased tolerance to alcohol, in which a person needs to continue drinking more to get the same effects as they once did from alcohol.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when someone stops drinking.
In 2019, roughly 1 in 4 adult Americans reported binge drinking within the past month, while an estimated 1 in 16 reported heavy alcohol use, which the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.4
A handbook for supervisors published by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management points to several signs—such as lots of Friday and Monday absences, frequent tardiness, and a need to tend to various “emergencies” that arise—as potential indicators of problematic alcohol use. While not always specific to alcohol-related situations, other declines in performance that could in some cases be part of a larger issue of problematic drinking include:2
- Frequently missed deadlines.
- Numerous careless mistakes.
- Incomplete assignments.
Employees who struggle with drinking problems may be more likely to experience strained relationships with coworkers or isolate themselves from others completely. However, some other signs of an alcoholic employee in the workplace may be more immediately obvious, such as:2
- Smelling of alcohol.
- Unsteady gait.
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Body shakes.
- Falling asleep on the job.
- Changes in mood and behavior.
It is important to note that many of these symptoms and signs can be indicative of other physical or mental health issues, and that the diagnosis of an alcohol use disorder and the handling of workplace alcohol issues should respectively be made by treatment professionals and handled by appropriate workplace assistance protocols.2
How to Approach a Coworker with a Suspected Alcohol Problem
If you’ve spotted signs of alcoholism or alcohol relapse in a coworker, approaching this person can be a scary thing to do. You may be afraid that you will offend this person if you are wrong in your assumption that they are drinking too much or drinking in an unhealthy way. Ideally, although you may not want to involve others in this situation, it is best to speak to your supervisor or a human resources representative about your concerns before going to your coworker on your own.
If this person does have an alcohol abuse problem, this is a larger issue than you alone can handle, and your employer must remain aware of your concerns.
Typically, a manager or HR representative can meet with the employee, point out the concerning behaviors, and help the person seek treatment if they desire it. When an employer suspects that an employee has an alcohol abuse issue, they should:2
- Keep clear documentation of their concerns with specific examples.
- Meet with the employee privately and away from coworkers.
- Point out patterns of poor performance or tardiness.
- Possess a questioning, rather than accusatory, tone.
- Give the employee a chance to talk about what is going on. The employee might admit to having a problem with alcohol or reveal an alternative medical or mental condition that is causing these behaviors.
- Assist the employee in getting help, usually starting with referring them to the company’s employee assistance program (EAP).
- If the employee denies issues, or refuses to acknowledge a problem, the human resources employee or supervisor can then focus on performance issues and work to have the employee improve attendance or performance and follow through with progressive discipline if the issues don’t improve.
Of course, if someone’s behavior is disruptive, they may need to be removed from the workplace for their safety and the safety of others. Furthermore, if an employee is visibly intoxicated, an employer, manager, or a Human Resources representative should address the situation immediately.2
Best Ways to Support a Coworker Struggling with an AUD
If your coworker struggles with an alcohol use disorder, the most important thing you must remember is to not ignore a potential issue with alcohol in the workplace. If you suspect your coworker is abusing alcohol, listen if your friend would like to talk about their issue. If they ask for help, take them to your designated human resources representative. If you suspect a problem and see evidence that makes you concerned, talk to your supervisor or human resources representative.
Do not cover for them by clocking in for them if they are late or covering for them if they leave early. Do not loan them money or make excuses for them. Doing so enables them to continue these behaviors.2
Laws About Alcohol in the Workplace
There are laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which may influence the workplace handling of alcohol addiction and other debilitating substance use disorders. In some cases, alcoholism may constitute a disability, and people with alcohol use disorders may be afforded certain protections under various state and federal provisions.
Of course, other laws and legal consequences may vary from one state to another. Many regulations also depend on the particular workplace policies currently in effect (such as policies that indicate the place of employment is an alcohol-free workplace and that employees can be tested at will for alcohol).2
Can You be Fired for Being an Alcoholic Employee?
Employers have the right to require that employees meet certain expectations regarding performance and conduct in the workplace. If your employer has a policy that indicates showing up intoxicated for work is an offense that one can be fired for, then the employer can terminate the employee.
However, if someone is a diagnosed alcoholic that doesn’t drink at work and is qualified to perform the essential functions of their job, certain protections may exist for them under the ADA. For example, the employee may request and receive scheduling accommodations to facility counseling appointments without fear of losing their job.5
If a person is taking time off from work to get treatment for alcoholism, they may be protected under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If the employer meets certain criteria according to the standards, such as company size, then generally 12 weeks of medically approved leave are allowed to seek treatment.7
Laws vary from state to state, and a legal professional may be best able to adequately answer this question for your particular situation.
Alcohol in the Workplace Statistics
Past SAMHSA studies have estimated as many as 9% of full-time US workers engaging in heavy drinking within a month of surveying. From this same data set, workers in the construction and mining industries had the highest rates of heavy drinking, at more than 16% and 17%, respectively.4 Additional statistics include: 8,9,10,11,12
- Absenteeism among people who abuse substances is around 4 to 8 times higher than for non-abusing employees.1 (However, be aware that not all people who struggle with alcohol abuse will present this while on the clock – especially if they are a high-functioning alcoholic.)
- 9% of illicit drug users ages 18 and older are employed full-time or part-time.
- Most binge drinkers (79.3%) are full-time or part-time employees.
- Food preparation/service workers and construction workers are among the groups with highest rate of alcohol use.
- Food preparation/service workers also reported the highest rates of illicit drug use.
- According to a 1990 study, 15 percent of fatal truck crashes involved using alcohol on the job.
- In the railroad industry, 27 percent of fatal accidents and 16 percent of nonfatal accidents involved the use of alcohol or another substance.
- The odds of on-the-job injuries increase with frequency of heavy drinking.
- 9% of illicit drug users ages 18 and older are employed full-time or part-time.
- According to one study, on-the-job drinking shows correlation with gender harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Stressors That May Contribute to Alcoholism in the Workplace
Evidence is growing that job-related stressors contribute to alcohol use. Certain work-related stressors may contribute to someone drinking alcohol in the workplace or outside of work. Common work-related stressors include:13
- Overly noisy work environments.
- Work environments that are too cold, hot, or dirty.
- Work environments full of interpersonal conflict between supervisors and coworkers.
- Unfair treatment regarding pay, benefits, and promotions.
- Job insecurity.
- A heavy workload.
Treatment Options for Someone with an Alcohol Use Disorder
Your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a great place to begin if you are looking for confidential help for an AUD. Your human resources department can also provide information about your company’s resources for substance abuse issues.2 Formal treatment for an AUD is an option for you to explore for yourself, your coworker, or loved one.
American Addiction Centers is a leading provider of alcohol and other addiction rehab across the United States. At American Addiction Centers (AAC), you will find treatment driven by the latest research and best practices to treat AUDs. American Addiction Centers offers individualized treatment provided by a caring and compassionate team. Start your journey to recovery today by calling our free, confidential helpline, at . We’re available 24/7 to answer questions and point you in the best direction depending on your situation.
It is not easy to approach a coworker who has a suspected alcohol use disorder. However, the cost of ignoring the issue far outweighs the costs of actually confronting someone in a respectful, caring manner. Whenever possible, seek the help of others who have experience in confronting people with substance use disorders, such as professional interventionists and human resources managers. Make sure to consult with your supervisor or designated HR contact before approaching anyone at your job regarding an issue like alcohol abuse.