How to support employees with alcohol challenges

Though sometimes hard to detect, alcohol abuse and alcoholism can impact the workplace — from absenteeism and lost productivity to missed deadlines, strained relations with co-workers and outright dismissals from work.

It is important for employers to have policies and plans in place, including support for employees who struggle with these challenges, says James Kinville, senior director of LifeSolutions, an employee assistance program (EAP) and part of UPMC WorkPartners’ suite of services.

Smart Business spoke with Kinville, in recognition of Alcohol Awareness Month, about what employers can do to help.

What can employers do about this problem?

Employers have an obligation to support their employees, but should not base that solely on lost productivity or the company’s bottom line. Rather, employers have a moral obligation to help their employees live healthier, happier, more sober lives. The same goes for employees dealing with family, financial, legal or health problems.

The best way to address these issues is through an EAP. This benefit offering, which is often separate from health insurance, helps employees with personal or work-related problems that impact their job performance. EAPs typically offer short-term counseling, referrals, employer/employee training and education.

How specifically can an EAP help employees with alcohol problems?

Most EAPs offer awareness training so managers can recognize the signs of a problem and know what to do about it. Once a policy is in place, a manager knows that he or she can refer an employee to the program. That’s incredibly helpful and gives a manager peace of mind.

It’s not a supervisor’s job to diagnose alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Even if a manager suspects that alcohol is involved, it’s better to focus on how the suspected alcohol problem is manifesting itself through increased absences, frequent tardiness or a dramatic falloff in work quality. Stick to tangible behaviors, not the alcohol part.

Accusing the employee of having an alcohol problem rarely goes well and it can be very stressful. It’s better to say you have noticed certain ongoing problems, provide the employee with the EAP number and insist that he or she make contact right away.

What about confidentiality? Are some people hesitant to seek help because it could hurt their career if the word gets out?

Whether the employee seeks help on his or her own volition or is referred by a manager, EAPs are extremely confidential. The EAP only divulges to the employer that the employee made contact with the EAP and that there’s a plan in place. No other health or confidential information is shared.

What is the process once the employee makes contact with an EAP?

Most EAPs offer six sessions with a counselor who conducts a comprehensive review and assessment and works with the employee to develop a plan of action. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed. Other times, the counselor may refer the employee to a therapist or other behavioral health professional covered under the health plan.

What would you tell employers that don’t have an EAP?

Partner with one. EAPs tend to be low cost and even small companies can afford them. It’s a high-value service that employers tend to not need often, but when they do, it makes all the difference.

It’s also important to promote the EAP. Employees need to know about the service and that their organization supports it. EAPs work best when they are promoted internally in a consistent, customized manner, through mailers, lunch and learns, promotional campaigns and worksite presentations.

Any final thoughts on helping employees with alcohol challenges?

You often hear with alcohol or drug addiction that the person with the disease — and these are diseases, not moral weaknesses — has to hit bottom before realizing he or she has to take steps to get better. By utilizing EAPs and other support services, we can raise that bottom so the afflicted person doesn’t have to fall as far. With an EAP, the employee can take action sooner, before a potential crisis hits.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan