Spotlight on… alcohol misuse

Bob Kiley, the former Transport for London boss, recently spoke out about his alcoholism, admitting that he often drank vodka in the afternoon, but arguing that his drinking habit did not affect his work.

However, according to a survey by counselling service provider Employee Advisory Resource (EAR), one-third of employers say they don’t have any support structure for staff who have difficulties with alcohol.

On average, says EAR, one in 10 employees has an alcohol problem, yet many employers may not know how to provide appropriate intervention and support to an addicted employee.

EAR’s clinical director Dirk Hansen suggests that if an employee’s performance is compromised, then the employer should intervene.

“If a drinking problem is suspected, based on evidence at work, then that employee should be offered referral to occupational health, a GP, an employee assistance programme, or specialised in-patient or outpatient treatment,” he advises.

Hansen says that one of the primary detectors of alcoholism abuse is when the employee is no longer able to manage their life due to a clear dependency on alcohol. Signs of this could be arriving late for work, needing to leave early, absence, poor performance, or delays in completing projects.

HR needs to raise awareness among employees of substance abuse policies so that staff are fully aware of the firm’s position.

However, Don Shenker, director of policy and services at Alcohol Concern, worries that too many employers who are confronted with evidence of alcohol misuse treat it as a disciplinary matter rather than a health problem.

This can be a difficult area, says Shenker, as while employers may be concerned about an employee’s wellbeing, there are issues of privacy to navigate. “Employees must have a sense that they won’t be penalised for admitting they have a drink problem,” Shenker says. “Bosses can be the key to encouraging their workers to seek help and advice.”

Professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School Cary Cooper advises that colleagues should not be afraid to address alcohol misuse issues.

“If someone suspects a colleague has a drink problem, they should talk to them and seek help from HR,” he says.

“Most organisations know when someone is an alcoholic, but a lot of people feel they shouldn’t interfere because it is personal or feel guilty about reporting a colleague.”

Managing alcohol problems

  • Employees need to know the company’s position on alcohol use – what is considered acceptable behaviour and what is not.
  • Base interventions on evidence at work, not on hearsay.
  • HR’s role is not to police the personal lives of the employees, but if alcohol use is having an adverse impact in the workplace, then it is HR’s responsibility to intervene and offer support.
  • Consider implementing a counselling service or employee assistance programme.

Tips from Dirk Hansen, clinical director, Employee Advisory Resource

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