What to Do When Alcohol Becomes a Problem on the Job
Alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, is a medical condition that can affect every part of your life, including your professional life.1 While exact numbers of substance abuse in the workplace are not well studied, about 15% of the United States workforce self-reports drinking alcohol before work, drinking alcohol at work, or working while under the influence of alcohol.2
Alcohol use can alter how individuals interact with others and handle their life commitments, customer and coworker interactions, daily and long-term job expectations, and workplace standards or regulations.1
In this article:
- How Alcohol Affects Professional Life
- Signs That Alcohol May Be Interfering With Employment
- Employment Security and Alcohol Addiction Treatment
- Alcohol Addiction Treatment in the Context of Employment
How Alcohol Affects Professional Life
Misusing alcohol can make it difficult for you to efficiently and properly perform your job duties and maintain consistent employment.3
Alcohol misuse may impact your employment no matter what time of day you are drinking. For example, if you drink heavily in the evening, you may wake up with a hangover and find it difficult to get to work on time or even get to work at all.4
Most workplaces explicitly prohibit working while under the influence of any substance and substance abuse in the workplace. If you find yourself using alcohol in the mornings before work or even during work, the alcohol may negatively impact your work performance because alcohol inhibits clear thinking. Drinking before or during work can make it more difficult for you to perform your necessary job duties.5 You may be more likely to make clerical errors, misplace items, or struggle to focus on tasks.
Holding a job that involves dangerous tasks, such as operating heavy machinery, drastically increases the risks associated with use of alcohol and work. Operating any machinery or vehicle while under the influence of alcohol can greatly increase your risk of accidents and injuries, as can using knives or other dangerous implements.6
Studies show that substance abuse in the workplace causes stress on both the employer and the employee.5 The workplaces most significantly impacted by alcohol misuse and addiction are those that require a high level of alertness—such as mining, construction, or maintenance—to ensure that everyone in the workforce is safe. When alcohol misuse is a problem in these work environments, accidents and injuries increase, impacting the company on multiple levels, including potential staff shortages for time off to recover and expenses for payment of workers’ compensation.7
Chronic alcohol misuse may also impact your work performance and thereby put stress on your employee relations. The effects of drinking may lead to tardiness, sluggishness at work, poorly performed work duties, or negative interactions with coworkers or supervisors.6
Additionally, a drinking problem can significantly impact your physical health, increasing the likelihood of poor work performance and employment instability.6 Studies show that individuals with patterns of alcohol misuse are at a higher risk of fluctuating between full-time and part-time work, leading to eventual termination and possibly long-term unemployment.8
Signs That Alcohol May Be Interfering With Employment
Individuals may have unhealthy alcohol use patterns for some time before they notice or accept them.9 Reasons for being unaware of a developing problem with alcohol may be related to multiple factors in life, including a colleague, friend, or loved one ignoring or dismissing any concerning behaviors or the possibility that the drinking has not yet shown any negative consequences.10
Individuals who might be considered “functional alcoholics”—that is, they may still be able to work full-time and maintain interpersonal responsibilities—may not accept that their alcohol use is a problem even if it exceeds recommendations by the CDC, their doctor has told them to reduce their alcohol use, or others have expressed concern.
The potential dismissiveness of unhealthy drinking levels inevitably leads to negative consequences in the individual’s life. If chronic alcohol misuse continues, it will inevitably and progressively impact personal and professional life relationships.11
Perhaps you have started to notice that your habits of drinking alcohol and work life are not mixing well. Changes in your ability to fulfill your responsibilities, including at work, can be warning signs that alcohol use or misuse is approaching the clinical criteria of being an addiction. Warning signs that alcohol use may be impacting your work include:11
- Being frequently late for or missing work, especially if you run out of sick time or paid time off due to time off spent using or recovering from using alcohol
- Declining work performance, such as missed deadlines or poorer performance reviews than you have received in the past
- Experiencing conflicts with coworkers, supervisors, clients, or customers
- Sustaining injuries to yourself or others at work, including seemingly incidental injuries like dropping a box of merchandise on your foot or stapling your finger that seem to happen due to a lack of balance, concentration, or fine motor skills
- Being demoted, taken off projects, laid off, or fired
- Experiencing sustained joblessness
If you experience any of these warning signs, seek help for alcohol misuse. Your doctor may screen you and recommend that you be evaluated for alcohol use disorder by a mental health professional who can recommend alcohol addiction recovery services.
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Employment Security and Alcohol Addiction Treatment
If you are beginning your recovery process and looking into treatment options, you may need to consider taking time off to receive the recommended services. This leave can be an important part of the recovery process, but may seem impossible to arrange if you cannot be without income for the recommended period of treatment. You may also worry that you could lose your position or healthcare benefits if you take the time away.
While each situation is different, you have options for scheduling treatment.
Sick Leave, Vacation, or Paid Time Off
If you receive dedicated sick time or paid time off (PTO) at your job, you can use these days toward the time you spend in treatment. Your sick leave may need to be approved by HR to be used for treatment purposes, but many states allow for the use of sick days to address medical conditions.
Some individuals who are in industries that have built-in vacations or off-seasons—such as education and hospitality—choose to postpone treatment until they have an extended period of time off or would naturally be given fewer shifts.
Family and Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal leave law that provides job protection for up to 12 weeks while you take time off work. During these 12 weeks, your health benefits will also be protected, but the time off will be unpaid.12
You may receive partial pay if it is provided by your state or by your employer. For example, California provides state benefits that amounts to 60-70% of the person’s salary—up to a maximum of $1,357—for individuals on FMLA leave for a period of 8 weeks.13 Some employers pay the difference for a set number of weeks to provide the employee with their full salary for part of the time they are on leave, such as 4-5 weeks. After that period, your employer may allow you to elect to supplement any FMLA payment you receive with paid time off you have accrued.
FMLA is available to those employees who:12
- Work for a covered employer
- Have worked at their place of employment for at least 12 months
- Have worked 1,250 hours over the past 12 months
- Work for a company that has 50 or more employees within 75 miles.
FMLA is offered to those employees to care for:12
- The employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition
- A serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job
Under these stipulations, addiction treatment would fall in the category of a “serious health condition.” If you meet all other employment qualifications, addiction treatment would be a qualifying event for taking FMLA leave.12
Check with your company before taking time off and be certain to fill out all necessary paperwork for job security during treatment.12 Your employer may use a third-party to verify the medical validity of your FMLA leave—this allows you to choose if you want to tell anyone at work why you are choosing to take leave. If your employer offers any pay during leave or the ability to use PTO to supplement leave benefits, you will need to fill out paperwork for this to go into effect as well.13
If you use FMLA for treatment, your job is protected during the leave period, though your employer may have the option to move you to another position with the same pay after your leave. If your leave is extended so you can continue treatment, your job stays protected. When you have stepped down to outpatient treatment, your FMLA may not be needed, as you may then be able to return to work.12
FMLA can help you get the care you need and the opportunity to fully focus on yourself and your health without having to worry about your job security and health benefits.12
Americans with Disabilities Act Protections
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alcohol use disorder is considered a disability, with some exceptions. The ADA stipulates that “qualified” individuals must be offered accommodations to seek treatment for their alcoholism.14
According to the ADA, you are considered “qualified” if you are able to continue the functions and duties of your job, with or without reasonable accommodations. Meaning, your employer may be required to provide an accommodation to you, such as time off for treatment. The accommodation—such as the amount of time—required under the ADA may depend on your job status (e.g., full- or part-time), job industry, and other factors.13
Because of the protected status granted by the ADA, you cannot be fired for disclosing an addiction or a history of substance use. However, if your alcohol use negatively impacts your work life and you become unable to perform your job duties, there are no legal protections to keep you from being disciplined by your employer for the infractions against your job contract, up to and including job termination.13
Alcohol Addiction Treatment in the Context of Employment
If you are beginning your recovery from alcoholism, there are four main stages for treatment. Each of these recovery phases allows necessary support as you navigate new sobriety and build tools and resources to develop long-term sobriety.1
The detoxification phase is where you stop drinking alcohol and allow your body the chance to recover from your alcohol addiction. Detoxification can be completed in a medical setting if medically significant complications, such as seizures and coma, are considered a possibility. These withdrawal symptoms are most likely if you have used alcohol over a long period of time, have used alcohol in extremely high amounts on a regular basis, or have a medical history that puts you at high risk of complications like neurological symptoms.1
When going through the withdrawal phase in a medical setting, medication management may help you with any discomfort you experience. With this medical assistance, most people who begin alcohol detoxification can complete the withdrawal phase without medically significant consequences.1
You may also be able to complete nonmedical detox in an outpatient setting.
During inpatient treatment, you live in a residential facility for a recommended period of time, typically between 30-60 days. For some individuals who spend the majority of their time at work, find most of their social connections at work, are the primary source of income for their household, or have a job that is potentially unstable, it can be particularly difficult to admit that the effect of alcohol misuse on their work has become so profound that it requires taking time away from work.
But treatment in a residential setting removes you from the stressors, rituals, and environments that currently facilitate alcohol use, thereby allowing you space and time to fully process your thoughts and feelings surrounding your alcohol use. This also allows you to begin the healing process by identifying cravings and triggers and building a relapse prevention plan.15
Call 800-839-1686 Toll Free. Privacy Guaranteed. No Commitment.Help is standing by 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Outpatient treatment is frequently referred to as a “step down” in the level of care after inpatient treatment. If you are diagnosed with mild to moderate alcohol use disorder or you cannot take time away from work, you may start with treatment in an outpatient setting. With outpatient treatment, you attend program sessions similar to the treatment you would receive in inpatient treatment, but you live at home instead of at the facility.15
You attend group therapy and individual therapy sessions two to three times per week depending on your level of need. At these sessions, you can process your home or work environment, the expectations of you, and your ideas for the future. You receive support as you process your thoughts and feelings, and develop new coping skills to help prevent a relapse.13
You may continue to work during outpatient treatment or may return to work partway through your outpatient program.15 If you feel that your work environment contributes to your alcohol misuse, this is an ideal opportunity to bring it up with your therapist so you can work through any cravings and triggers that you may be experiencing and ensure you can healthily process them without a relapse.15
Some individuals do choose to make educational or employment goals as part of the recovery process to get out of environments that are heavily associated with alcohol use.
The maintenance phase of recovery is the last and longest phase of recovery. Here, you will spend the rest of your recovery journey remaining focused on coping with your cravings and triggers through healthy outlets rather than alcohol.13
In the maintenance phase you may choose to engage in a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Additionally, many people in the maintenance phase choose to continue with individual therapy sessions with either an addictions counselor or a psychotherapist. You may even be able to continue seeing the therapist you worked with in treatment.1
If you are concerned about the effect of your alcohol use on your ability to provide for yourself and effectively complete your job responsibilities, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? at any time to speak to an addictions specialist about your treatment options.
- Fuller, R. K., & Hiller-Sturmhöfel, S. (1999). Alcoholism treatment in the United States: An overview. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 23(2), 69–77.
- Brown, A.L. & Frone, M.R. (2010). Workplace Substance-Use Norms as Predictors of Employee Substance Use and Impairment: A Survey of U.S. Workers. Journal on Studies of Alcohol and Drugs, 71(4), 526-534.
- Norris, J. L. (1950). Alcoholism in industry. Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 11(4), 562-566.
- Mangione, T. W., Howland, J., Amick, B., Cote, J., Lee, M., Bell, N., & Levine, S. (1999). Employee drinking practices and work performance. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 60(2), 261-270.
- Macdonald, S. (1995, October 01). The role of drugs in workplace injuries: Is drug testing appropriate? Journal of Drug Issues, 25(4), 703-722.
- Kaithuru, P. N., & Stephen, A. (2015). Alcoholism and its impact on work force: A case of Kenya meteorological station, Nairobi. Journal of Alcoholism & Drug Dependence, 10.4172/2329-6488.1000192.
- Wilkins, K., & Mackenzie, S. G. (2007). Work injuries. Health Reports, 18(3), 25-42.
- Baldwin, M. L., & Marcus, S. C. (2013, June 19). The impact of mental and substance-use disorders on employment transitions. Health Economics, 23(3), 332–344.
- Sournia, J. C. (1987). Alcoholism: yesterday and tomorrow. Hygie, 6(1), 21-23.
- Rotunda, R. J., & Doman, K. (2001). Partner enabling of substance use disorders: Critical review and future directions. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 29(4), 257-270.
- French, M. T., Maclean, J. C., Sindelar, J. L., & Fang, H. (2011). The morning after: alcohol misuse and employment problems. Applied Economics, 43(21), 2705–2720.
- S. Department of Labor. Family and Medical Leave (FMLA).
- State of California Employment Development Department. (2021). Calculating Paid Family Leave Benefit Amounts.
- S. Commission on Civil Rights. Chapter 4 – Substance Abuse Under the ADA. Sharing the Dream: Is the ADA Accommodating All?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2020). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide, Third Edition.