Alcohol is easily the most widely used and misused substance in the United States.1 The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently released its National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which reported that, in 2018, more than half of all adult Americans drank alcohol in the past month.2 This percentage corresponds to an estimated 139.8 million drinkers. Of this number, 67.1 million were binge drinkers and 16.6 million were heavy drinkers.2
The consequence of excessive drinking—which includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any alcohol intake by pregnant women or anyone under 21—can exact a toll at home and in the workplace.3 The exact cost of this burden on employers is hard to calculate as the figure is based on a number of factors—absences, lost productivity, healthcare costs for associated medical issues, malpractice costs for accidents to the drinker or co-workers, etc.—costs that are estimated to range from $33 billion to $68 billion each year.4 And, if a workplace covers it, one must also factor in the cost of any treatment for an alcohol use disorder.
Employers are keenly aware of the issues that arise from employee alcohol use and abuse. Many strategies have been developed to address the problems when they arise, or to prevent them before they do. Some of these strategies include workplace policies or programs mandating drug and alcohol testing of both potential hires and existing employees.
Typically, there are consequences to the violation of these policies that should be outlined as part of the employee guidelines. The majority of large businesses already have such programs in place. Even small businesses have begun to take the issue seriously and, as a result, implement their own programs to tackle the issue.6 While there certainly is a cost to the employer to maintain such programs, they are proven to benefit the workplace environment in the long run on a number of levels such as:6
- Increased safety.
- Increased employee morale.
- Decreased workplace theft.
- Increased productivity.
- Reduced employee turnover.
- Decrease in the amount of employer insurance payments.
Benefits to Creating an Effective Workplace Alcohol Program
Workplace alcohol and other substance programs have a clear benefit to the companies that embrace them. By setting up assistance programs and encouraging treatment for their employees—via referrals to various local treatment resources or information services—businesses, companies, and other types of employers can play a role in reducing the huge negative burden of workplace alcoholism. And, despite the price of maintaining such programs, it is highly likely that employers will ultimately decrease company costs.
Improved employee well-being coupled with a boost in productivity goes a long way toward a picture of improved individual help and subsequent company health.
Effective Alcohol Programs in the Workplace
One such program is Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). An EAP is a voluntary, work-based program that is free and confidential.5 These programs address various types of problems and can provide counseling, assessment, and employee referrals to deal with assorted issues—including substance use, mental health, marriage, and finances.4,5
EAPs were established to help existing personnel who were struggling with alcoholism by encouraging 12-Step program participation.
EAPs were established to help existing personnel who were struggling with alcoholism by encouraging 12-Step program participation. Today, most programs have expanded to recognize and address drug abuse as well. As part of the hiring process, an effective workplace program will clearly delineate company policy towards the use of such substances, and establish the consequences of deviating from the policy. Ideally, a program will include a no-tolerance stance for alcohol consumption during business hours or for missed work due to drinking outside of the office.
Despite the existence of a no-tolerance policy, should an alcohol problem arise with an existing employee, that individual should feel safe in approaching the employer for help. Employers should work to remind workers of such programs as these programs may have been better utilized if their existence was more obvious.
Supervisors and or human resource workers should be trained to detect burgeoning problems before they become dangerous. Some signs of alcohol problems may include the following:4
- Frequent tardiness.
- Excessive use of sick leave.
- Missed deadlines.
- Unmet quotas.
- Strained relationships with coworkers.
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Unsteady gait.
- Mood and behavior changes.
- Sleeping on the clock.
With proper training, and with some amount of vigilance, it becomes easier to detect the signs pointing to possible alcohol or drug abuse. Educational materials (videos, written, periodic conference sessions) may help educate the entire workforce to assist in the detection of someone who might need help.
Some employees might be unclear themselves if what they are experiencing is an alcohol issue serious enough to seek help or treatment. Self-assessment tests, such as the one below, can prove helpful for such individuals:
What to Do if You Suspect Abuse
Fear of retribution or of risking your—or a co-worker’s—job by inquiring about these issues should not be a deterrent. Ignoring, or keeping to yourself on a potentially life-threatening issue such as alcohol abuse may only perpetuate the problem, and compound the consequences for everyone in the shared workplace environment. This is a sensitive situation, so it is important to approach the issue cautiously. But, by being aware of the people around you and the issues they may be experiencing, you can act if there appears to be a problem, and you may ultimately help those in need seek the treatment that could save their lives.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Alcohol Misuse.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Excessive Alcohol Use.
- U.S. Office of Personnel Management. (n.d.). Alcoholism in the Workplace: A Handbook for Supervisors.
- U.S. Office of Personnel Management. (n.d.). What is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?
- Bush, D.M., Lipari, R.N. (2014). Workplace Policies and Programs Concerning Alcohol and Drug Use. The CBHSQ Report.
- Masi, D.A. (2011). VCU Libraries Social Welfare History Project: Employee Assistance Programs.