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Alcohol & Alcoholism in the Workplace


Afternoon happy hours, beer fridges, and even an open bar, the past decade has seen alcohol move beyond client entertainment or festive drinks at the company holiday party and into an employee perk. While drinking responsibly at the office is seemingly a bonding activity that lightens the mood, it could also contribute to another, darker trend of the past few years: alcohol abuse.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that 19.5 million people in the United States over age 18 struggle with an alcohol use disorder. More so, the crushing loneliness and pressures of the pandemic have caused at least 13% of Americans to increase their alcohol or drug use.

However, it’s not only a problem in the home. A new study by the University of Buffalo found that workplace alcohol use and impairment directly affect an estimated 15 percent of the US workforce. While being inebriated in safety-sensitive positions is clearly hazardous, employee alcohol abuse carries massive safety and financial risks to any business. It is estimated that alcohol misuse has an annual cost of $185 billion in the United States.

How does an employer strike the right balance between workplace culture, safety, and employee health? Start by educating yourself on the signs of alcohol abuse, especially the early indicators. Then create a plan for what you’ll do when these signs of an alcohol disorder appear.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace

Some signs of an alcohol problem are easy to spot. The unmistakable smell of alcohol and slurred speech. Bloodshot eyes, severe weight fluctuation, and blemished skin are other common health issues associated with alcoholism.

When physical signs are unnoticeable, changes in an employee’s attitude or work ethic can signal an issue. For example, a once high performer may slip in their job performance for no apparent reason. They may also begin arriving late, leaving early, or missing work more frequently. The US Office of Personnel Management estimates that absenteeism is 4 to 8 times more prevalent among those with an alcohol use disorder.

More often, however, the signs that an employee is struggling may be less noticeable. The United States Office of Personnel Management also tells employers to watch for other signs. Subtle shifts in behavior, poor hygiene or dress, a sudden decrease in productivity or socializing, or chronic health issues are possible queues.

Of course, these signs do not always indicate an issue with alcohol but are red flags that something is going on and likely worth a conversation. Employers should use their best judgment when confronting an employee about a suspected substance use problem. 

What Should I Do if My Employee Has a Problem with Alcohol?

Most employers are not medical professionals and cannot diagnose a person with an alcohol use disorder. This does not mean there is nothing you can do for an employee struggling with alcoholism. If you’ve noticed an employee exhibiting the signs listed above, create a plan for approaching this employee. Make sure to adhere to guidance from your Human Resources and/or Legal Department.

When confronting an employee about a suspected substance abuse issue, it’s wise to know the options for follow-up available from your company.

Many companies offer Employee Assistance Programs for employees struggling with mental health concerns, including substance use disorders. Employees may have access to counseling or financial assistance for addiction treatment through an EAP. Some companies may also have access to support and educational programs.

It is also important to understand the job protections available to an employee who seeks treatment for a substance use disorder. Depending on their tenure and employment status with the company, they may be protected under the Family by and Medical Leave Act. While FMLA does not cover any missed work due to their addiction, it may ensure they have a job upon returning from a treatment program for drug or alcohol abuse. You will need to refer the employee to a health care provider to receive the benefit, so employers should communicate this in writing to the employee.

Another option you can look at for your employees is ADA. Alcoholism is an impairment, and if it substantially limits a significant life activity (e.g., learning, concentrating, interacting with others, caring for oneself), it will constitute a disability. An alcoholic may be a person with a disability and protected by the ADA if s/he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer may be required to provide accommodations to an alcoholic (e.g., a flexible schedule to enable the employee to attend counseling appointments). Employers may need to consult with their legal counsel to ensure they handle these situations appropriately.

A Safe, Confident Return to the Workplace

It’s one thing for an employer to make an employee aware of the resources available to them. It’s another to be intelligent and empathetic enough to create a support plan for a safe and confident return to work. Have regular check-ins with the employee and adjust the plan as needed based on their progress. Apply and encourage any education programs or therapy available to the employee from the EAP into the plan.

Be sure to include work performance improvement benchmarks, too. Create actionable goals for job performance improvement. Ask if you need to modify specific duties upon their return.

Be mindful of enabling behavior, though. It is not helpful to shift all their work to other employees or try to counsel them yourself.

The Impact of Sober Employees on the Workplace

A sobriety-supportive workplace has benefits for both employees and their employers. A study by SAMHSA found that employed individuals are more likely to continue their recovery journey. The results also showed that employed individuals who receive treatment for AUD experience the following:

  • Lower rates of relapsing
  • Better quality of life
  • Higher likelihood of successful transition back to everyday life

It also pays to have sober employees in the workplace from a cost perspective. For example, The Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative estimates that New Hampshire loses $2.36 billion a year from undiagnosed substance abuse issues. Addiction in the workplace is prevalent in most workplaces across the US. The National Safety Council states that over 70% of people with a substance use disorder are employed.

Retaining an employee in recovery also allows employers to save on the cost of hiring and training a new employee. A sober employee is less likely to engage in substance-related workplace accidents, which can affect the bottom line.

Creating a Recovery-Friendly Workplace

Overall, an employer should work to create a recovery-friendly workplace. Creating an environment that supports people on their recovery journey has been shown to have benefits for any business. Many treatment providers and recovery organizations, including Bradford, offer alcohol and drug education classes for supervisors and employees.

Does this mean you have to give up the 4 o’clock office happy hour? Not necessarily but be mindful that the fun doesn’t include pressure for anyone to imbibe. Serve non-alcoholic options and plan other alcohol-free activities that encourage co-workers to bond. If you have any doubts, skip the alcohol.

Bradford helps employers of all sizes maintain healthy, recovery-friendly workplaces through our flexible and affordable substance use disorder treatment programs. Call 888-SOBER-40 for more info or to get immediate help for an employee. We’re here 24/7.