Alcoholism in the Workplace
Table of Contents
There is no doubt that the disease of alcoholism continues to run common throughout the United States. Individuals of all ages and from all walks of life are impacted by substance use disorders. Alcohol use and abuse contribute to many life complications such as death or injury at home and in the workplace.
The impact of substance use and abuse is far-reaching and often leaves to confines of home or one’s personal life. The alcohol consumption and substance use habits of individuals can have a grave impact in the workplace, especially in professional situations where motor function and awareness are essential for safety.
Studies show that approximately 14 million Americans abuse alcohol or are alcoholics – this amounts to about 1 in every 13 adults.1 The effects of alcoholism in the workplace range from accidental injuries to increased rates of absenteeism or tardiness. An individual’s decision to consume alcohol or other mind-altering substances is their own decision on their personal time.
When the effects of alcohol are present in the workplace, often, an employer may need to step in to address the situation at hand. Many employers may question what their role is in terms of providing assistance to personnel suffering from a substance use disorder. Identifying patterns of behavior within the workplace that are commonly associated with alcoholism and substance use disorder and then assessing what support is necessary for employees who are affected.
We will explore some of the professions most commonly associated with alcoholism and substance abuse, along with signs an employee may be struggling and the options for assistance.
Professions with High Rates of Substance Abuse
Alcoholism and addiction are an issue in every workforce across the country. Approximately 9% of U.S. workers had a substance use disorder within a twelve-month period.2
Alcoholism and alcohol abuse contribute to more than three-fourths of the total number of individuals in the workforce with substance use disorders.2
Over the years, many studies have been conducted regarding the professional fields with the highest occurrences of alcoholism and substance abuse. Data seems to be relatively consistent in identifying many safety-sensitive occupations and service occupations as having high rates of substance abuse and alcoholism.2
While, of course, individuals may have their own vulnerability to alcoholism and substance abuse, it is helpful to understand how an individual’s profession relates to their consumption of alcohol and other mind-altering substances.
Occupations with High Rates of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Disorders
In many cases, industries or professions that are often dominated by males tend to have higher rates of alcoholism among workers. Additionally, professions that allow for more absenteeism or flexible schedules are also more commonly associated with alcoholism and substance abuse.
In some industries, alcohol is the primary substance employees are abusing, while other industries may have higher rates of substance abuse linked to illicit drug use.3
While there may be some differences in terms of the occurrence of substance abuse disorders among professions, employers still have a responsibility to review guidelines about substance abuse and use within the workplace.
Prevention and Education for Employees and Employers
Employers are ultimately responsible for ensuring a safe and supportive work environment for all personnel. It is good practice for employers to provide a safe and supportive workplace that discourages substance abuse and misuse and supports recovery from substance use disorders such as alcoholism.4
Some employers may utilize a Workplace Supported Recovery Program that uses evidence-based policies and procedures to help prevent initial substance use. These programs or modified programs have the potential to decrease the occurrence of substance misuse and progression to substance abuse and alcoholism in the workplace.4
There are elements of workplace culture that can help employers build a Workplace Supported Recovery Program.
Elements of a Workplace Supported Recovery Program
Through education and awareness, employers can help combat any potential increase in substance abuse among employees – which is essential for a well-functioning and safe workplace. Employers have a responsibility to manage and mitigate any dangers or trouble within the workplace.
Combating the effects of alcoholism and substance abuse is a large part of that responsibility. While alcohol use and abuse are ultimately the individual’s personal decisions, there is a grave potential for patterns of alcohol consumption to impact the workplace. Since alcohol use and abuse do impact the ability of employees to effectively perform their job responsibilities, employers have some responsibility to identify threats of substance abuse and support employees to make healthy and safe decisions while on the job.1
Creating a workplace culture through policy, education, and stigma reduction that supports a sober lifestyle and recovery is especially helpful in industries where alcoholism and substance abuse is common.
Signs of Substance Abuse Among Employees
There are common signs to identify if you suspect that an employee or colleague may be suffering from alcoholism or another substance use disorder. Please keep in mind, that it is not the employer’s responsibility to diagnose a problem. However, remaining mindful of the signs of alcohol abuse in the workplace can help employers support their employees in navigating this sensitive issue.
Key indicators that an employee may an alcoholic or suffer from substance use disorder include leave and attendance, problems with performance, relationships in the workplace, and overall behavior at work.1
Warning Signs of Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace1
Unauthorized absences, unexplained absences, frequently being late, excessively using sick leave, patterns in absence (frequently absent the day after payday or on Monday or Friday), frequent “emergencies” that contribute to unplanned absences.
It is important to note that these are not the only signs that an employee is struggling with substance abuse. Conversely, employees who may exhibit only one of these signs should not automatically be labeled as having a problem with alcohol or other illicit substance.
Employers should take into account the employees’ overall behavior and work habits. When an employee is exhibiting performance or conduct issues along with some of these signs, it is likely time for supervisors and employers to consider a referral to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for further assessment.1
Actions Employers Can Take
If an employee has a problem with alcohol or another substance that has impacted the employee’s ability to complete job responsibilities, it is then appropriate for an employer to step in.
As mentioned previously, creating a workplace that is supportive of recovery but also utilizes education and policy to set boundaries around the consumption of alcohol and other substances is key for acting.5
Employers or supervisors who are concerned about an employee’s behavior do have the authority to issue a drug and/or alcohol test. One of the first steps an employer can take towards supporting an employee who is struggling is a referral to the EAP.
However, it is essential for employers to approach the situation with sensitivity. Some individuals with alcoholism or substance use disorder may become defensive or distrust receiving support from their place of work. As an employer or supervisor, it is important to reassure your employee that the matter will be treated as confidential, and they need not worry about the potential for retaliation in the workplace.5
In many cases, treatment for alcoholism and addiction will be necessary to support recovery for the employee. Some employers may even provide treatment options to their employees through insurance or other benefits. Either way, employees have the capacity to seek treatment and may take a leave of absence from their work in order to receive treatment.
Employees who take a leave of absence from work to seek treatment are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act or state law (which varies by state).5 Keep in mind that though an employer may offer treatment options, ultimately, the decision to seek treatment is up to the individual.
Employers can establish policies that allow for a return to work without retaliation once treatment is completed. Of course, employers also have the option to implement a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol and drugs. In these cases, employees would be terminated after a failed drug test or other evidence of alcohol or drug abuse is present.5
Returning to Work After Completion of Treatment
Ultimately, the success of an employee’s personal recovery after completing treatment is up to them. However, employers should be aware of what to expect once an employee returns to work after completing a treatment episode.
An employee’s success ultimately depends on a variety of factors, including the quality of treatment received, adherence to prescribed medication (if applicable), motivation to stay sober, severity of drug or alcohol consumption prior to receiving treatment, underlying psychiatric or medical issues, family support, and resources.6 The length of treatment is also a decent indicator of success for individuals. Generally, employers who are mandating treatment and support may require extended treatment for employees.
Employers have the capacity to continue supporting the recovery of their employees after returning from a treatment stay. In addition to implementing the policies and procedures identified in a Workplace Supported Recovery Program, employers can ensure that the workplace continues to encourage recovery from alcohol and drugs.
Continuing the access to health insurance or other benefits that support the overall health and wellbeing of an employee is essential to keep treatment and therapeutic options open to employees. Pre-approving medications that are prescribed by a professional to assist with recovery, such as ADHD medications, helps employees in recovery take medications responsibility instead of turning to alcohol or illicit substances. Incorporating options for alternative therapies or encouraging alternative therapies for pain management gives employees options to manage the pain of work-related injuries or bodily stress.
Lastly, providing accommodations for individuals in recovery at work, such as re-assigning responsibilities while the individual is in outpatient treatment or facilitating breaks in work for an employee to receive therapy or other support.6
While there is no one solution to ensuring that employees stay sober in the workplace, employers have options when it comes to seeking assistance for their employees. If an employer has questions about creating and implementing policies and procedures that support a sober work environment, it is recommended to explore options with human resources.
Additionally, employers or employees who are concerned about substance use and abuse in the workplace should contact treatment professionals to determine what treatment is appropriate. While these issues are not always comfortable to address in a professional setting, the overall health and safety of those in the workplace could rely on education and even intervention.
- United States Office of Personnel Management. (n.d.). Alcoholism in the Workplace: A handbook for supervisors. Retrieved from https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/worklife/reference-materials/alcoholism-in-the-workplace-a-handbook-for-supervisors/#Relationships
- National Safety Council and NORC at the University of Chicago. (n.d.). Substance use disorders by occupation. Retrieved from https://www.nsc.org/getmedia/9dc908e1-041a-41c5-a607-c4cef2390973/substance-use-disorders-by-occupation.pdf
- Miller, J. (September 2014). Which profession has the highest rate of drug abuse?. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3034936/which-profession-has-the-highest-rate-of-drug-abuse
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.) Workplace supported recovery program. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/opioids/wsrp/default.html#:~:text=Individuals%20with%20a%20substance%20use,employment%20and%20other%20life%20roles.
- Society for Human Resource Management. (n.d.) Employing and managing people with substance use addictions. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org//tools-and-samples/toolkits/pages/personswithaddictions.aspx
- RTI International. (n.d.). Preparing for an employee’s return to work after prescription drug use. Retrieved from https://www.rti.org/sites/default/files/related-content-files/return_to_work_after_substance_misuse.pdf