Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace

With 75% of adults experiencing a substance use disorder also actively working in jobs across all industries, alcohol misuse in the workplace can impact all aspects of a business.1 The costs to organizations can be much more than just financial.

While alcohol misuse can and does occur in every industry, when employees misuse alcohol while working in areas such as construction, food service, or caregiving, there are potential safety risks that can impact clients, colleagues, and the reputation of the company.

The first step to ensuring a safe and effective working environment for everyone is for employers and coworkers to recognize the signs of alcohol misuse and become aware of the effects alcohol misuse can have on the workplace.1

In this article:

Signs of Alcohol Misuse in the Workplace

Alcohol misuse may manifest in the workplace in various ways, such as: 2

  • Showing up for work under the influence of alcohol or drinking at work
  • Storing alcohol in shared or personal workspaces
  • Offering alcohol to others during work hours
  • Behaving inappropriately
  • Calling in sick often
  • Being tardy frequently
  • Missing deadlines or turning in incomplete work
  • Sleeping on the clock
  • Isolating from coworkers or becoming less collaborative in team environments
  • Being argumentative and defensive with coworkers
  • Smelling like alcohol or exhibiting progressively poorer hygiene (e.g., appearing disheveled or un-showered)

While social use of alcohol during appropriate work functions—such as after-work happy hours—is commonplace, creating a culture of alcohol use within the context of work may subtly signal to employees that alcohol use may be overlooked during working hours as well.

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Effects of Alcohol Misuse in the Workplace

Alcohol misuse in the workplace creates a domino effect. One person’s behavior can change workload balance, productivity, morale, employee turnover, customer satisfaction, and so on.

Absenteeism Due to Alcohol Misuse

Calling in sick happens for many reasons, one of them being alcohol misuse and its consequences, like hangovers. Studies show that consuming alcohol influences absenteeism and that a person’s frequency of heavy drinking correlates with the number of days absent from work.3

When workers miss work days, the business may suffer. It costs an estimated $1,600 for each employee that misses work due to alcohol misuse. 3 Researchers also found that if an employee feels supported in their decision to miss work due to alcohol misuse, they are more likely to continue to do so.3

Decreased Productivity

Alcohol misuse, combined with absenteeism, can affect productivity.4 Productivity losses accumulate when employees miss work due to health problems. Both lifestyle risk factors and health conditions influence employee absenteeism.

However, not all employees stay home when they feel ill from alcohol misuse. This behavior is called presenteeism. It’s important to monitor employee behaviors associated with presenteeism because it also directly relates to productivity loss. Behaviors like completing tasks on time, working well with coworkers, working attentively, and staying focused affect production.5

Impact on Coworkers

Alcohol misuse can make coworkers feel unsafe at work. It can also lower morale and put a strain on those who are carrying more of the workload. There are instances, however, of colleagues encouraging or participating in drinking activities during the workday, especially if the culture of the workplace supports substance use.6

Toxic work environments due to alcohol misuse can actually form away from the workplace, such as when an employee goes out drinking with coworkers for a working lunch or happy hour. This puts both the employees who are drinking and their colleagues at risk of experiencing harassment, aggression, or escalation of these behaviors due to alcohol use. It’s also possible that employees drinking offsite can incur more serious injuries from traffic accidents or physical altercations.7

These consequences can be costly for employers, especially if they occur because an employee is drinking at work. Workplace alcohol use can result in higher turnover rates and customer dissatisfaction, as well as higher healthcare payments.

Preventing Alcohol Misuse in the Workplace

Prevention of alcohol misuse in the workplace begins with awareness. Leaders in the company must understand risk factors that can lead to employee drinking patterns.10 However, coworkers who interact with each other on a daily basis are often the first people who can spot issues early on, so it’s important for everyone on the team to know the signs to look out for.

Risk factors include:10

  • Stress
  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Workplace relationships and feeling alienated from leaders and coworkers
  • Personal cultures and subcultures
  • Workplace cultures and subcultures

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The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers advice to employers on how to implement a needs assessment to evaluate your company regarding substance misuse properly. You may find alcohol is not the only substance of concern.11

A needs assessment will help you understand the nature of your workforce, the major problems and stressors affecting your employees, and the possible ways in which alcohol misuse may be causing or contributing to some of those problems. The needs assessment results help you create a drug-free work policy, a requirement for companies who receive any federal funding.11

SAMHSA also encourages the human resources department to play a significant role in prevention strategies.12

Prevention Strategies

No matter what type of prevention program you implement on alcohol misuse, there are specific strategies to use to make it successful. These can include:12

  • Include family members of employees
  • Start prevention during the onboarding phase
  • Provide access to resources for more information, which may include company documentation and resource lists of services from external organizations
  • Educate employees on all health issues, not just alcohol misuse
  • Provide opportunities to get involved with community-based prevention projects

You may implement the best prevention strategies yet still have alcohol misuse in the workplace. If you suspect an employee may need help, it’s essential to provide access to the professionals who can adequately screen and assess them to determine treatment needs.

Screening and Referral

Clinical alcohol and drug specialists can use the AUDIT screening to assess employees for possible alcohol use disorders. AUDIT stands for Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.13

If the clinician finds that an employee can benefit from treatment, they will make a referral based on needs. Some employees may need help with detox, while others may benefit from occasional telehealth services.13 There are many outpatient treatment options for employees, allowing them to maintain their jobs while overcoming issues with alcohol.13

Interventions for Alcohol Misuse in the Workplace

If your employer does not already have programs in place to address substance misuse among employees, bring concerns to your HR department or boss. If you are concerned about employees you supervise, you may want to work with other management to implement new policies.

Interventions in the workplace may include the following:9

  • Alcohol education
  • Incentives
  • Persuasion
  • Modeling
  • Restructuring the work environment
  • Policy changes (e.g., include alcohol or other substance testing)

Programs to curb alcohol misuse in professional settings range from company-wide events to confidential and individualized activities. For example,10

  • Health promotion events—Some companies hold positive health events that include vendors, speakers, and educational opportunities that show the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP)—Many businesses use an EAP that provides initial treatment, like counseling, to employees. EAPs allow the employee to seek help without interfering with their job. EAPs often provide alcohol education to both the employee and the whole organization.
  • Peer intervention or peer assistance—Employees can be taught to recognize alcohol misuse in the workplace through educational programs and training. They can encourage and assist a potentially alcoholic coworker to seek help. This can be done with a high level of confidentiality to protect the employee.

Treatment Options for Employees

Advancements in alcohol use treatment make it easier for employees to receive help without fear of losing their job or even taking time away from their job. Doctors and therapists are providing outpatient services today that were once only offered at inpatient facilities.  Treatment may start with medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for detox. Withdrawals from alcohol can be severe and interfere with the ability to function. Supervised by a psychiatrist or physician, some medications can alleviate withdrawal symptoms like cravings, urges, and physical discomfort.13

Detoxing from alcohol is not necessarily enough to keep someone from relapsing. Part of recovery is learning to change thought patterns and behaviors. Behavioral interventions, taught by licensed mental health and substance abuse specialists, are evidence-based methods that work. Employees can work with therapists on an outpatient basis who will likely use one or more of the following techniques:13

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)—A form of talk therapy that helps employees change negative thinking that will, in turn, improve behaviors.
  • Motivational Interviewing (MI)—MI is a form of therapy used to help employees who may be in denial about their alcohol misuse or who may not yet have an internal motivation for sobriety. Therapists can help them recognize the effects drinking alcohol is having on them at home and work.
  • Contingency Management—Contingency management therapy offers rewards and incentives to employees who avoid misusing alcohol.
  • Self-care practices—Self-care therapy is learning how to be mindful can promote better health and healing.
  • 12-step groupsAlcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other peer support groups based on the 12-step format offer education and support.
  • Family therapy—Because alcohol misuse affects loved ones, it’s often important that family is included in treatment. Family members can learn how to avoid enabling and set boundaries for support, and the family unit can work through issues related to addiction.
  • Co-occurring disorders treatment—Some employees may struggle with alcohol misuse and another mental health disorder. If so, treatment with medication, therapy, or both occurs simultaneously.

The key to reducing alcohol misuse in the workplace is to avoid waiting until something goes wrong before acting. There are steps that can be taken at every level of your company and for every employee.

If you have noticed that alcohol misuse is affecting your own workplace performance, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to an addiction treatment specialist about your treatment options.

Resources

  1. Goplerud, E., Hodge, S., & Benham, T. (2017). A Substance Use Cost Calculator for US Employers With an Emphasis on Prescription Pain Medication Misuse. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine, 59(11), 1063–1071.
  2. S. Office of Personnel Management. (2021). Alcoholism in the Workplace: A Handbook for Supervisors. Policy, Data, Oversight.
  3. Bacharach, S. B., Bamberger, P., & Biron, M. (2010). Alcohol consumption and workplace absenteeism: the moderating effect of social support. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 334–348.
  4. Mitchell, R. J., & Bates, P. (2011). Measuring health-related productivity loss. Population Health Management, 14(2), 93–98.
  5. Thørrisen, M. M., Bonsaksen, T., Hashemi, N., Kjeken, I., van Mechelen, W., & Aas, R. W. (2019). Association between alcohol consumption and impaired work performance (presenteeism): a systematic review. BMJ Open, 9(7),
  6. Frone M. R. (2012, February 1). Workplace Substance Use Climate: Prevalence and Distribution in the US Workforce. Journal of substance use, 71(1), 72–83.
  7. Gmel, G., & Rehm, J. (2003). Harmful Alcohol Use. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  8. Ames, G. M., & Bennett, J. B. (2011). Prevention interventions of alcohol problems in the workplace. Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 34(2), 175–187.
  9. Liira, H., Knight, A. P., Sim, M., Wilcox, H. M., Cheetham, S., & Aalto, M. T. (2016). Workplace interventions for preventing job loss and other work-related outcomes in workers with alcohol misuse. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2016(9),
  10. Roman, P.M., & Blum, T.C. (2002). The Workplace and Alcohol Problem Prevention. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  11. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Assess Your Workplace. Drug-Free Workplace Programs.
  12. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Prepare Your Workplace. Drug-free Workplace Programs.
  13. Knox, J., Hasin, D. S., Larson, F., & Kranzler, H. R. (2019, December 1). Prevention, screening, and treatment for heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder. The Lancet. Psychiatry, 6(12), 1054–1067.

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