The use of alcohol in the workplace can be a serious issue for the user, colleagues and the organisation as a whole. Having employees under the influence of alcohol in the workplace is everyone’s concern and if left unchallenged it can become a risk to the organisation and all those in it.
The recent changes to the recommended daily unit limit for men which has been reduced to 14 units per week, the same as women, means that more users will exceed this limit, but for many users, consuming alcohol is a part of their social life and by exceeding the limit does not necessarily lead to issues for the user. It is when their use starts to become part of their life and they begin to rely on alcohol as a means to cope with what life throws at them, that their use is more likely to lead to dependency.
Indicators that an employee has, or is, developing an alcohol dependency can include; reduced productivity, changes in how they interact with colleagues, lack of motivation, fluctuating between extreme behaviours e.g. very loud and lively to incredibly quiet and subdued, increased time off work and workplace accidents.
However, alcohol dependency can be a ‘silent issue’ which can easily go unnoticed. Stereotypes often shows alcohol dependent individuals as reclusive, non-functioning members of society which, in some cases, couldn’t be further from the truth.
For example, a functioning alcohol dependent individual might not act in the way you would expect them to. They are quite likely to hold down a responsible role and be a productive, creative and approachable employee. They may even be a high achiever or in a position of authority and responsibility, in fact, their workplace success and contributions may lead people to overlook their issue with alcohol.
Using alcohol to cope with stress and life issues is common. However, while the immediate effects of drinking can make the user feel more relaxed, regularly drinking to handle everyday pressures is not a great solution and could quickly escalate into a dependency.
Someone with dependency may make excuses to justify having a drink. “I’ve had a tough day”, “The sun is out”, “It’s payday” – the list goes on. Although they don’t necessarily believe that they have a problem they will still go to lengths to justify or even hide their drinking. This includes drinking alone and hiding the evidence.
Maybe they don’t drink every day, but if they start drinking can they stop? Do they continue to drink until either there is no alcohol left, the party’s over, or they have passed out? There are different types of alcohol dependency, and for some people they are not able to stop once they have started and press the ‘off switch’, they become powerless to control their drinking.
If someone drinks on a regular basis, then the amount of alcohol they need to get the same click or buzz gradually goes up. Therefore, if their brain is now used to a certain level of alcohol, they won’t get that same click or buzz if they drink less. Tolerance can creep up without warning, if you notice that someone is needing a bit more each time they drink, it may be a sign that they are becoming alcohol dependant and will need help.
Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a set of symptoms that can occur following a reduction in alcohol use after a period of excessive or regular long-term use. Symptoms typically include anxiety, shakiness, sweating, vomiting, fast heart rate, and a mild fever. More severe symptoms may include seizures, seeing or hearing things that others do not, and delirium tremors (DT’s). Symptoms typically begin around six hours following the last drink, are worst at 24 to 72 hours, and improve by seven days. It is very difficult for an alcohol dependent person to stop by themselves, they should seek professional help before trying to quit.
An employee who is alcohol dependent may manage to function effectively sometimes for years as long as they can have a drink, which could be when they are at work. As such, they are likely to be in denial that they have a dependency, yet they instinctively go to extreme lengths to both feed and hide their dependency. And since they are convinced that they simply don’t fit the “classic alcoholic” stereotype, chances are much higher that they will not seek help and will remain undiagnosed.
Employers should look to adopt an effective Alcohol and Drug Policy that will make it clear that they will support an employee who seeks help for dependency or one who is identified as having a dependency and accepts help.
Many policies that we review here at Hampton Knight mix the issues of misuse and dependency and try to manage them in the same way when they are and should be treated as separate issues. The policy should have clear definitions including one for dependency and one for misuse so all employees are aware of the difference.
The policy should also be clear on when help would be offered (this should be before the employee contravenes the policy or is asked to consent to a test); what help and support would be offered; and what the expectations are for an employee who is offered help and support.
For more information or clarification on alcohol limits, legislation, help and support programmes or any policy queries, please contact Hampton Knight on 01827 65999.