· Features

Managing alcohol problems in the workplace: treatment works

It is almost inevitable that at one time or another a senior HR professional will be confronted by the dilemma of what to do about someone in the workplace who has an alcohol dependency problem.

It may happen at board director level, middle management, a technical specialist or unskilled worker. Alcohol does not discriminate according to occupation and its abuse is not confined within any social, intellectual or financial boundaries. It often goes unnoticed, or unacknowledged, for years until a crisis or critical incident occurs. That may take the form of, downward spiral of deteriorating work performance or a sudden cataclysmic outburst, such as one sales director who at a customer conference event gave an impromptu after dinner speech in which he launched into abuse of his national account customers.

Alcohol abuse, like any other form of substance abuse, has a ricochet effect, which touches everyone around the user. Its wider effect on business, the economy, health services and law and order is immense.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that, globally, 3-5% of the average work-force is alcohol-dependent, and up to 25% drink heavily enough to be at risk of dependence. A survey carried out in December 2007 for insurer Norwich Union Healthcare found a third of employees admitted to having been to work with a hangover and 15% reported having been drunk at work. One in 20 employees reported hangovers at work once a week.

The output loss to the UK economy as a result of alcohol problems is estimated at up to £6.4billion.

For the HR professional, if an employee has been identified as having an alcohol problem, there is a dilemma around how much of an asset (or a liability) they are to the company; whether to support them to try to reach a recovery or to go down the warning and disciplinary route. If the employee turned to alcohol because of work-related stress then arguably there is also a moral consideration. Alcohol dependency is recognised as an illness and treatable condition. How much you want to invest in a person will determine what route to go down. If an employee was a valued part of the team and contributed to performance before the alcohol abuse became apparent, then it is worth bearing in mind that people who receive this kind of support for their health may have a heightened loyalty and commitment to an organisation, thus becoming a more valuable asset.

Treatment for alcohol abuse has been shown to be effective and is widely available both via the NHS and from independent specialist providers. So something can be done to help employees with an alcohol problem and if there is a will to help then early intervention increases the chances of a good outcome. But how do you identify someone with a drink problem? The answer is probably more to do with the culture of your organisation than detailed screening processes. There is still a perceived workplace stigma in admitting to having a developing drink or substance problem. If you have an HR policy that encourages people to come forward and seek help without fear of dismissal, then that will make a significant difference. Staff handbooks, bulletins, posters and similar communications should have reference to the company alcohol policy and encouragement to get any problem addressed before it escalates. It is possible to maintain a job when physically dependent on alcohol with no discernible impact on performance for a while, but there will usually come a time, when deterioration in health and performance will become evident. Colleagues may smell alcohol on a person and they need to know what to do about it. Again, the culture should be to encourage this to be reported to a manager - for the good of the employee as well as the company.

Indicators of alcohol misuse impacting on performance may be apparent in absence records and sick notes and this should be taken into account as a factor at back to work interviews and appraisals. Employees may show patterns of sickness that may indicate weekend bingeing. When an employee identifies themselves or is identified as having a problem with alcohol, the first step should be supportive. The HR professional should be aware of sources of help available. The employee should be encouraged to see their GP for proper assessment and they can then be referred onto alcohol services as necessary. Sometimes advice from a healthcare professional can motivate the person to cut down their drinking. Other people who are physically dependent will need a detox lasting usually one week, which needs to be medically managed. It can take place at home, in a specialist inpatient detox unit or in a hospital according to clinical and social need, local provision available and funding. The company may consider funding a detox in a private hospital as an investment in the employee. Many people also need rehabilitation, which may be residential or non-residential. Outcomes are usually good. The person should also be directed to self-help peer group support such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Smart Recovery groups. Alcohol abuse is widespread and not confined to any group. It has high cost both at a personal level and to the organisation. It is often hidden but a culture of openness and support will help to get the problem acknowledged so that it may be managed. Treatment works and people do recover. Supporting an employee through to recovery is likely to result in a more loyal and more committed employee who is an asset to the organisation.

Dr. Joss Bray is medical director for addiction services at the Huntercombe Group, a provider of specialist healthcare including treatments for alcoholism and other addictions, eating disorder and mental health.