Dealing with Alcohol Abuse in the Workplace

Andrew O’ Gorman, BA(Econ), Hdip.Ed. MA, MMII, NTDAdip, Secretary, The Irish Guild of Sommeliers.

Drinking is associated with a wide range of social activities. It is also something that is very enjoyable when consumed in moderation. There are a number of people who suffer as a result of their drinking and some can be of a very serious nature. Consumed normally, the effects of alcohol are generally considered beneficial. Almost all alcohol problems relate to excessive consumption. These may be either short-term, acute problems resulting from a single episode of heavy drinking, or else long-term, chronic problems resulting from years of excessive drinking. If sufficient quantity of alcohol is consumed over a long enough period of time, anybody can become addicted to it. Alcohol usually requires regular heavy consumption for a number of years before physical dependence develops. There is some evidence that this process is accelerated in young drinkers. Any statement about safe drinking limits has to be qualified as not necessarily holding true for every individual.

People who suffer from alcohol-related disabilities also experience difficulties in many different aspects of their life and one of these is that of employment. Very few alcoholics correspond to the typical down-and-out. The majority of people who have problems with their drinking are still in employment and still have some kind of family life. This type of employee tends to have far higher rates of lateness and absenteeism than other workers. They have considerably higher rates of work accidents than do other workers and they also show significant deterioration in their own job performance. The cost to industry of continuing to employ such people without attempting to help them overcome their alcoholism is considerable. As long as the performance of such workers is being undermined by their alcohol consumption their potential is never likely to be achieved.

There are certain occupations where the risks of becoming alcoholic are specifically high. One such occupation is the drinks industry in its wider sense to include pubs, hotels, restaurants, off licences, breweries, distilleries and the hospitality industry in general. In general it seems that the easier access which people have to alcohol at work, the more likely they are to suffer alcohol-related difficulties.

Many companies have rules to do with alcohol consumption during working hours. In some companies drunkenness is considered reasonable grounds for dismissal and such rules may be particularly enforced when machinery is being operated which could be a danger either to the operator or to others. It is very important to distinguish between people who may simply be drunk on one or two isolated occasions and those who are dependant on alcohol. In both cases employees must be considered to be responsible for their own actions.

It should be possible to identify people with alcohol problems in the work setting. Obviously, not everybody who displays the characteristics already mentioned is going to have problems with their drinking but there is good evidence that a large number do. Once a person has been identified as having a drink problem by a responsible member of staff it is very important to stress that the interview during which it is to be determined whether such an individual really has a drinking problem should be conducted by a person who has been trained in the most effective and sensitive methods of undertaking this task. In large companies this person will be from the human resources department or in some cases a medical officer. If the employee does have a problem with his drinking, it is important that he should understand that the matter will be dealt with personally by whomever he is interviewed. The whole process must be treated with the utmost confidentiality. Once an employee is identified as having an alcohol problem he should be directed towards appropriate assistance.

It is important for a company within the drinks industry that the actual terms of a company alcoholism policy should be explicit rather than implicit. Not only does this avoid creating unnecessary confusion in the minds of employees, but it is also of particular importance under the terms of the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989/2005 which outlines that employers have a responsibility to protect employees from known risks. Worldwide between 20 % and 40 % of industrial accidents and injuries in the workplace are alcohol-related. For people in the drink trade alcoholism is a major occupational hazard.

If a company alcohol policy is to be effective its terms must be clearly stated and must be known to all employees. Consultation with employer organisations, trade unions and other interested parties should take place from the start.

A number of people with alcohol related problems will slip through the net. Alcoholism is a condition which still carries considerable social stigma and people are unwilling to identify themselves or their friends as suffering from it. It is also important to consider preventative measures. The advantage of prevention is that it does not require identification of individuals.

To bring the problem of alcoholism out in the open is most important. As long as it is swept under the carpet and ignored it will continue to increase. Over recent years significant advances have been made in the prevention and treatment of alcohol problems in the workplace.

Since young people form their ideas about drink and drinking at an early age, it is obvious that alcohol education should be on school and college curricula. Its present absence from the curriculum is a matter of grave concern. Education could play a very important role amongst those who are professionally involved in helping people with alcohol problems.

Most of us enjoy alcoholic drinks. Nevertheless, alcohol is a drug and its effects in normal use and misuse are distinctive.