How employers can address employees who abuse alcohol

Albert Moore, Account Representative, LifeSolutions, UPMC Insurance Services Division

Many myths surround alcohol and alcohol abuse, and those myths can often affect attitudes in the workplace, as well.

The most common myth may be that people who abuse alcohol are easily identifiable as “bums,” or “losers,” and that they are unlikely to be employed. The truth is that only a small percentage of alcoholics could be so categorized and that 90 percent of alcohol abusers are employed.

“There are hidden costs with alcohol abuse that employers don’t always see,” says Albert Moore, account representative for LifeSolutions, a division of the UPMC Insurance Services Division. “Its effect shows up in absenteeism, lower productivity, workplace injuries and accidents, increased health care costs and even workplace morale.”

Smart Business spoke with Moore about alcohol abuse in the workplace and how employers can address it.

Is there a reliable estimate as to how much alcohol abuse costs businesses each year?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that untreated cases of alcohol abuse costs businesses $185 billion a year. For an individual company, it is estimated that alcohol abuse costs a company about $7,000 a year per employee, and that affects in some way 15 percent of the work force. That means that a company with 500 employees is probably spending more than $500,000 a year on the effects of alcohol abuse.

How should an employer react when there is a suspicion that an employee has an alcohol problem?

Supervisors and managers often lack confidence that they can effectively address problems that appear to be the result of alcohol abuse.  But each potential situation provides an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. The employee’s peers will gain respect for a supervisor’s problem-solving ability and appreciate the concern expressed for a co-worker. Untreated abuse always gets worse. The sooner the intervention, the better the result for the employee, the employer, and the workplace.

Are there specific things a supervisor can do?

Many factors can complicate a supervisor’s ability to take action, including the fact that alcohol consumption is legal and employers have no way to control the behavior of employees away from work.  However, employers can do what is necessary to ensure that their employees perform their duties effectively and safely, which includes banning alcohol on a work site. An employer has the right to set rules that can discourage or eliminate alcohol in the workplace.

How does a supervisor know when it’s time to act?

It helps if a supervisor is both aware and available. Listen to employees and take note of problem behaviors. Sometimes employees might confide in a manager or supervisor, sharing the fact that they are struggling with an alcohol problem or admitting that they are worried about their drinking.

In such instances, a recommendation that they contact an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is often all the motivation and direction they need. A manager should always refer to company policy and/or speak with a human resources representative regarding self-disclosures to assure confidentiality.

How can EAPs be of assistance?

EAPs are a good place to turn to for help if you have an alcohol problem because these programs can recommend very specific things you can do to start to address the problem. The service that EAPs provide is confidential, and because most EAPs are independent of the employer, they are trusted by employees. EAP representatives are experts in this area and have the experience to steer employees in the right direction.

An EAP health or alcohol addiction coach is a great place to start. Many people are hesitant about asking for help because they are embarrassed, or in denial, or worried they might not like what they hear. However, even the best athletes in the world need a coach, someone who can take an objective view and provide that fresh look at things that you may be missing. This is what alcohol abusers need.

EAP coaches will often refer someone with an alcohol problem to other experts who can help, depending on what they need. In this way, EAP coaches are like brokers. They know the business and can help find the best deal in terms of care and counseling.

What are some signs employers can look for that may be indicative of alcohol problems?

An impaired employee may be the last to recognize the problem. It is essential for a supervisor to focus on job performance, documenting specific examples of behaviors that are unacceptable or substandard per company policy.

Again, it is recommended that the manager consult HR before speaking to the employee. Focusing on behaviors, instead of opinions or diagnoses, allows a supervisor to avoid potentially inflammatory reactions. EAP consultation can help identify signs of deteriorating performance.

There are times when a supervisor or manager may have to deal with an employee who is impaired on the job. This requires prompt action to ensure the safety of the employee and others in the workplace. EAPs can offer guidance on making a referral and on handling the employee.

Albert Moore, MPM, CEAP, SAP, is an account representative for LifeSolutions, a division of the UPMC Insurance Services Division. Reach him at (412) 647-8124 or [email protected]

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan