Problem Drinking at Work

The arrest of Premier Gordon Campbell in Hawaii for drunk driving has created much commentary about problem drinking in public life.

But what about problem drinking in private life – the private sector, that is? In the corporate world, problem drinking can be every bit the career wrecker it currently threatens to be for the Premier. And problem drinking in the private sector may remain private, often until it’s too late.

Mike’s case is a good example. The supervisor of a fast food restaurant in London, Ont. was coming to work smelling slightly of booze. It didn’t seem too serious. He was a bit distracted on some shifts; occasionally he left early. He was seldom absent. At company get-togethers he sometimes drank too much and had to be taken home, but staff just put it down to him having a good time. Mike was a good, knowledgeable supervisor who ran his restaurant smoothly.

But as time went by, staff observed subtle signs of problem drinking. Long term customers sometimes asked staff if something was wrong with Mike. Rumours began to circulate that whenever Mike called in sick, he was actually recovering from a hangover.

Mike’s boss wasn’t concerned and felt Mike’s drinking habits were his own business. One day, though, staff mentioned Mike’s occasionally erratic behaviour to the boss. The manager decided to speak to Mike. But he never addressed the drinking directly. He just told Mike to watch himself at company functions.

Then one day, as with Premier Campbell, the crunch came – “rock bottom”, to use the parlance of Alcoholics Anonymous. Mike was charged with drinking and driving. Not only had Mike brought humiliation upon himself and his family, he and his manager had lost credibility amongst the staff.

The boss was forced to asked Mike to get treatment.

Had the boss taken a different view – that problem drinking was in fact a workplace problem – the drinking and driving charge, the humiliation for Mike and the loss of credibility for both him and his superior may have been avoided.

Research shows that between 10 to 15 per cent of the Canadian work force suffers from problems with alcohol. But all too often, the problem is covered up or minimized at work. And it shouldn’t be.

Just as the host bears some responsibility for the welfare of his/her imbibing guests, a boss must act on alcohol related problems. Along with the moral and health issues, there are real business reasons for this, alcohol related problems can affect productivity, increase absenteeism and sometimes jeopardize worker/company reputation and safety. They can demoralize a workforce that must contend with a “drunk” in its midst.

It would seem obvious for management to tackle alcohol issues head- on at the first sign of a problem. Yet they don’t, often because they are unaware of the signs of alcohol problems or are uncomfortable with it. Some, like Mike’s boss, wrongly take the view that the problem is the worker’s private affair. It is the workplace’s problem.

Addressing alcohol problems promptly is the best way to help problem drinkers. Avoiding the issue or making excuses for the drinker may exacerbate the problem and delay a resolution.

With this in mind, what follow are tips for identifying potential problem drinking in the workplace and signaling a call to action on the part of the employer.

1. Trouble with the Law.
The drinker has been in trouble with the police (e.g., public drunkenness, rowdy behaviour, being escorted home) or has been arrested or convicted for drunk driving.

2. Obvious Over-Drinking.
The employee drinks too much regularly at company functions or drinks excessive amounts. Personality changes occur when he or she drinks: He/she becomes more boisterous, belligerent or withdrawn, teary or sullen. The drinker may suffer blackouts.

3. Personal Hygiene.
The drinker may smell boozy, appear over-tired, unkempt, rumpled or distracted. Sometimes he/she may be sweaty, clammy, red-faced or excessively pale, or restless. The drinker may be evasive about his or her whereabouts or boast about how much he or she put back. The employee could be shaky in the morning or feel ill, signs of hangover and alcohol withdrawal.

4. On-The-Job Performance.
At first, the drinker may be functioning adequately at work, which makes it hard to confront him or her initially. However, rumours of problem drinking or quiet observations of problematic behaviour can hurt the drinker and the company’s reputation. If staff are noticing problem drinking behaviours, it’s likely customers and suppliers are, too.

As the drinker progresses into more severe problem drinking, performance usually suffers. Efficiency decreases when drinkers are distracted with alcohol problems. They may not follow proper processes, neglect certain tasks, lack attention to detail and in the worst case, pose a danger to themselves and others. Drinking on the job, driving home from company or any functions, or being hung over at work can interfere with the safe operation of machinery.

5. Interpersonal Effectiveness.
Problem drinkers are often depressed, feel hopeless about themselves and are unmotivated. They can interact inappropriately with others (e.g., too friendly, flirty) or be moody, unprofessional and erratic. They can be unreliable and untrustworthy or argumentative, rigid, irritable or impatient. Personal inconsistency leads to a lack of trustworthiness that can damage workplace relationships.

If you or someone in your organization appears to suffer from the effects of problem drinking, don’t wait for the worst to happen. Take action without delay.

First, speak to the individual about your observations. The drinker may try to shrug you off, deny the problem or minimize the situation. (If you are concerned about your own drinking, listen to yourself and investigate the possibility that your drinking habits may be harming you. Perhaps consult AA for a checklist of problem drinking signs. Or speak with a counselor. )

Second, as the boss, insist on accountability. Tell the drinker that the appropriate use of alcohol is important to the company but that problem drinking is everyone’s problem. Be sure to tell the individual it doesn’t have to remain a problem. Recommend treatment immediately. This could mean giving a referral to EAP or an alcohol and drug counsellor or recommending residential care.

Third, create a follow-up plan with the employee. Together, find a way to support the employee’s treatment, keep up-to-date on how the employee is doing and maintain contact with the employee’s colleagues, subordinates and supervisors regarding his/her progress.

Mike’s boss ignored the subtle warning signs at his peril. He was forced to confront the problem when Mike put himself and others in danger through drunk driving.

Mike did get help. He must remain constantly vigilant around alcohol, but he has won back his staff and employer’s respect and kept his job – which right now are the fervent hopes of Gordon Campbell.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Print Friendly