Over the past decade, alcohol has become more than just a part of client entertainment or holiday parties at the workplace. It has become an employee perk, with afternoon happy hours, beer fridges, and open bars becoming common. While drinking responsibly at work may seem like a way to foster camaraderie and lighten the mood, it can also contribute to a concerning trend: alcoholism in the workplace.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an estimated 19.5 million people in the United States aged 18 and older struggle with alcohol use disorders.

However, this issue is not confined to the home. A recent study from the University of Buffalo reveals that workplace alcohol use and impairment directly affect approximately 15% of the US workforce. While being intoxicated in safety-sensitive positions is dangerous, employee alcohol abuse poses significant safety and financial risks to businesses, costing an estimated $185 billion annually in the United States.

So, how can employers strike the right balance between workplace culture, safety, and employee well-being? It begins with recognizing the signs of alcohol abuse, particularly the early indicators, and creating a plan for addressing alcohol-related problems when they arise.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism in the Workplace

Some signs of alcohol abuse are readily noticeable, such as the smell of alcohol, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, weight fluctuations, and skin issues. However, when physical signs are less apparent, an employee’s attitude or work performance changes can be indicators. For example, a high-performing employee may start to underperform, arrive late, leave early, or miss work more frequently. The US Office of Personnel Management reports that absenteeism is 4 to 8 times more common among individuals with alcohol use disorders.

Often, signs of an employee’s struggle with alcohol may be subtle, including shifts in behavior, poor hygiene, decreased productivity, reduced social interaction, or chronic health problems. While these signs do not necessarily point to alcohol abuse, they raise red flags that warrant a conversation. Employers should exercise their best judgment when addressing suspected substance use issues with employees.

What to Do if an Employee Has an Alcohol Problem?

Employers are typically not medical professionals and cannot diagnose alcohol use disorders. Nevertheless, there are steps employers can take to assist employees facing alcoholism. If you notice signs of alcohol abuse in an employee, consider these actions:

  1. Create a plan for addressing the issue, and consult with your Human Resources and Legal Department to ensure compliance with company policies and regulations.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the resources available to employees, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that offer counseling and financial assistance for addiction treatment.
  3. Understand the job protections available to employees seeking treatment for substance use disorders, including provisions under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  4. Encourage employees to access available resources and support programs.

A Safe and Confident Return to the Workplace

Supporting employees in their recovery is not just about making them aware of available resources; it also involves creating a plan for their safe and confident return to work. All essential components are regular check-ins with the employee, adjustments to their plan based on their progress, inclusion of educational and therapeutic programs from the EAP, and setting work performance improvement goals.

However, employers should avoid enabling behaviors, such as shifting employees’ workload to others or attempting to provide counseling themselves. Striking a balance between support and accountability is key.

The Impact of Sober Employees on the Workplace

A workplace that supports sobriety benefits both employees and employers. Studies have shown that employed individuals are more likely to maintain their recovery, experience lower relapse rates, enjoy a better quality of life and successfully transition back to everyday life after receiving treatment for alcohol use disorders (AUDs).

Additionally, from a financial perspective, having sober employees in the workplace can lead to significant cost savings. Substance use disorders are prevalent in the workforce, with over 70% of individuals with such disorders employed, according to the National Safety Council. Retaining an employee in recovery helps save on the costs associated with hiring and training a replacement. Sober employees are also less likely to be involved in substance-related workplace accidents, benefiting the company’s bottom line.

Creating a Recovery-Friendly Workplace

In conclusion, employers should establish a sobriety-friendly workplace that supports employees on their journey to recovery. Offering resources, education, and a supportive environment has benefited businesses in various ways. Employers can consider alcohol and drug education classes for supervisors and employees and ensure that office events and activities do not pressure employees into consuming alcohol.

Creating a supportive workplace culture that respects employees’ well-being can help foster a healthier and more productive workforce. If employers encounter employees struggling with alcoholism, addressing the issue with empathy and the right resources can make a significant difference in their lives and the organization’s overall success.