How business owners can address alcoholism in the workplace

There are many challenges that employers face in the current climate, some of which are universal in their nature and often underestimated by entrepreneurs and senior managers alike.

Take alcoholism in the workplace, for example, with 40% of employers revealing that alcohol is a significant cause of low productivity in the UK.

It’s also thought that between 3% and 5% of all work absence is caused by alcohol consumption, while 35% of respondents have reported seeing colleagues under the influence of drugs and alcohol whilst at work.

But how can employers address this issue in their own workplace? Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

1.    Look for the Signs of Alcohol Problems in Employees

Prevention is better than cure when tackling alcohol problems in the workplace, as they’re far easier to overcome if they’re identified early.

This means that all line managers and supervisors must be coached to identify the initial signs of alcohol consumption in employees, so that they can raise issues in a timely manner and provide support swiftly and effectively.

But what are the key signs to keep in mind in this respect? Here are some of the most telling:

  • Is an employee frequently late or absent?
  • Do they struggle to focus on tasks (especially those that they’re accustomed to)?
  • Has the quality of their work decreased?
  • Are they missing deadlines on a regular basis?
  • Have the showcased erratic behaviour or fallen asleep at work?
  • Are they avoiding supervisors or senior colleagues?

Of course, these behaviours don’t directly indicate excessive alcohol consumption, so you’ll need to also keep your eyes peeled for more tangible physical signs such as bloodshot eyes, the strong smell of alcohol or evidence of shaking and tremors.

A combination of these signs may well be particularly worrying, but regardless of this, it’s important to approach employees in a cautious and sensitive manner that respects their privacy. After all, there may be a number of serious and personal factors that underpin an employee’s alcoholism, each of which needs to be treated with compassion and sensitivity.

Make no mistake; this combination of awareness and sensitivity will make it easier to tackle workplace alcoholism with speed and efficiency, without driving employees away or exacerbating their existing problems.

2.    Refer to Your Drugs and Alcohol Policy

If you do suspect that one of your employees may be experiencing problems with alcohol consumption, we’d also recommend that you refer to the company’s drugs and alcohol policy before calling a meeting directly.

While these policies tend to feature standard clauses that outlaw the consumption of alcohol at work, for example, they’ll also have bespoke elements that outline the support available to employees and your responsibilities in terms of maintaining confidentiality.

You should therefore refer to this as a guide when engaging the employee in question, both in terms of providing tangible and company-backed support and ensuring that you adhere to the precise terms of your firm’s policy when raising the issue of alcoholism.

Ultimately, this provides protection for all parties involved, while it also reflects the research that stakeholders have previously undertaken in determining the best ways of dealing with alcoholism in the workplace.

If your company is fledgeling in its nature and lacks a detailed drug and alcohol policy, we’d recommend seeking advice from a senior colleague before taking action.

This is particularly relevant if you’re a supervisor or line manager who regularly reports to a superior, as you’ll need to ensure that you act appropriately and take advice directly from those above you.

3.    Agree Further Action that Factors in Mitigating Circumstances

If it is determined that an employee has an issue with their alcohol consumption, it’s imperative that you create a future plan of action that’s both reasonable and tailored to suit the precise circumstances in question.

In general terms, for example, it may be enough to continually monitor afflicted employees while providing them with a bespoke package of support or wellbeing program.

This may include direct actions that can help individuals to function safely and effectively at work, while you’ll also have to document the minutes of any meetings and ensure that all agreed plans are committed in written records.

Of course, you’ll need to revisit the process if the employee’s behaviour continues to be problematic, which is why close monitoring and communication between management staff is so imperative.

However, the situation becomes a little more complicated if an employee is found to be drinking on the job. In some cases, this may pose a direct threat to the individual’s health and the wellbeing of those around them, creating a serious matter that may be viewed as gross misconduct.

In this case, your first port of call should be to address the colleague in private (while offering them the opportunity to have a witness to attend the meeting on their behalf).

If you believe that alcohol consumption has made them unfit to work, you’ll also need to send them home and ensure that they leave the premises and ideally by taxi if possible. Then, be sure to retain evidence of the event and prepare to present this at a future disciplinary hearing, in order to create transparency going forward.

Just keep in mind that while consuming alcohol at work or turning up to the office drunk may be technically classed as gross misconduct, there’s a need to factor in mitigating circumstances as and when they present themselves.

For example, an employee with a proven alcohol dependency gives cause for you to treat this as mitigation, making it unlikely that the individual in question will face dismissal.

Instead, issuing a formal warning while continuing to provide support as an employer is a far more effective and compliant approach, and one that actually helps you to tackle the issue and protect the wellbeing of your staff.