Picture this: You are at the company holiday party and are belly up at the bar and a coworker comes up and orders a cranberry and soda water for a beverage. You have been drinking and are a bit tipsy and ready for things to get a little crazy tonight! However, you notice that this coworker isn't drinking. What is your immediate reaction? Do you say "Hey party-pooper, you should put some vodka in that glass." Or “Geez, don’t be so lame! Let loose a little!" Or do you ignore that person, while quietly judging them? How do you think this person feels in this environment? Do you think they are comfortable and relaxed? Do you think they are insecure or struggling? Do you have compassion for them or judgment towards them?
A similar experience happened to me. I was at a conference that I had attended for years. Just the year before, I had been drunk at the bar being rowdy and loud, laughing and carrying on late into the night. I'm sure many of us can relate to this type of corporate event! However, over that past year, I had been confronting my unhealthy use of alcohol and it was the first time I was at this event sober, and boy was I uncomfortable! A colleague noticed I wasn't drinking and started questioning me about it. Why wasn't I drinking? Where did "Party Kelli" go? I made up some excuse that my stomach hurt (which I know she didn’t buy) and tried to get out of there as quickly as I could. I felt discouraged and upset. I also did not feel that I could be honest or transparent with her for fear of being judged.
This type of scenario has happened to many people who have made a choice to stop drinking. It can feel isolating and confronting, especially if the person has drunk at company events in the past. For people who struggle with alcohol dependance, it can be confronting, uncomfortable, and socially awkward to participate in happy hours, industry conferences, and holiday parties. Alcohol dependance, especially since the pandemic, has hit an all-time high, and many of your friends and collogues could be suffering in silence.
During the pandemic, we saw overall alcohol dependence increase by 14% in the last year-and-a-half, and a whopping 41% for women alone. That is an astronomical increase! Many, if not most, of these people are full time working adults trying to provide for themselves and their families or may have been laid off and are struggling to find work in their field. If you are a leader, you may not even realize that your employee is struggling, but you may have noticed their work performance decreasing. If an employee is struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD), the majority do not feel that they can be honest in the workplace about their challenges, especially since many organizations have a 'drinking culture' embedded within the company, and the social pressures of participating in events that revolve around drinking are incredibly challenging for those individuals to tolerate without feeling judged or tempted.
The article The Dangers of Substance Use in the Workplace published by VeryWellMind in 2020 estimates the cost of alcohol and drug-related insurance claims by employees are close to $100 billion per year! Furthermore, "misuse of alcohol and drugs among U.S. workers create[s] costly medical, social, and other problems that affect both employees and employers. Substance abuse among employees can threaten public safety, impair job performance and threaten their own safety." Alcohol and drug use is prevalent and pervasive in many industries, and employers can take steps to decrease stigma, provide support for employees suffering from addiction, and identify warning signs that an employee may be suffering.
Increase Sensitivity and Decrease Stigma
Struggling with substance use can be all-consuming for a person. It runs through their heads almost every second of every day. It can impact the way an employee performs their job, communicates their needs, and engages interpersonally with others. It can also create fear that if they were to be honest with their company, they may lose their jobs. Many times, employers do not realize that an employee is struggling until they have to take a leave of absence for treatment. This can be incredibly embarrassing for an employee and put the company in a tricky spot, especially if the employee returns after their leave is complete. Human Resource (HR) directors and managers can help decrease stigma by understanding that substance use disorders are just like any other type of diagnosed illness. For example, if you had an employee with a cancer diagnosis that needed to take leave, you would be compassionate and sensitive, and encourage them to take care of themselves without fear of losing their job. We need to treat SUD in the exact same manner: with compassion, understanding, and support.
Another way to decrease stigma is to educate managers on the importance of providing support and compassion to those employees by delivering trainings and seminars that help our leaders understand the issues that people with SUD have and how that can impact their work performance, but most importantly, how to create a supportive environment so employees feel safe to share their struggles without fear of retaliation or job termination. When we know better, we can do better, so providing training can create an understanding of what the employee needs and how to help them navigate recovery options that are available to them.
Sensitivity and confidentiality are critical in providing a safe work environment for employees suffering from substance use issues. If you have an employee open up to you about their struggles, ensuring their privacy rights are upheld is essential in safeguarding them from being targeted or ostracized by their peers or other managers.
Understanding SUD warning signs can help leaders identify employees who may need services and resources to help them on a path to recovery. Some of these signs include:
- Tardiness or lack of dependability
- Interpersonal issues with coworkers or managers
- Smelling of alcohol when arriving in the morning
- Glassy or bloodshot eyes
- Disciplinary problems
- Poor or sloppy work performance even after corrective action
Many employees with SUD will have co-occurring warning signs. For instance, they may be tardy three times a week and you smelled alcohol on them one of those mornings. Or, they may be instigating arguments with coworkers, not producing good work product, and you have noticed they have had glassy eyes a couple of mornings when they have come into work.
It is important to note here that even if you observe these warning signs, that does not necessarily mean the employee has a substance use issue. We should not jump to conclusions because the employee does not consistently finish their tasks. The truth is, they may just not be a great employee. Ensure other avenues have been evaluated before reaching any conclusions, such as talking with your HR director, documenting known issues, and using disciplinary actions to help correct the bad behavior. Identifying warning signs is a tool that managers can use, but should not be the first thing we assume when an employee is not performing.
If you uncover an employee has a substance use issue, pull the employee aside with the HR director and lead the conversation with concern and empathy. You could say something like: "Jane, I have noticed a concerning number of issues in your work performance and I want to have an open conversation about my observations. I want you to know that I am not coming from a place of judgment. I am genuinely worried about you. I have observed some troubling behavior and want to talk with you about it. As you know, I have spoken to you about your tardiness a number of times and have written you up once for being late. However, yesterday when you came in 30-minutes late, I smelled alcohol on your breath. I am concerned that you may be having some personal struggles with alcohol. Am I correct or is there something else going on?" You may need to reassure the employee that they are not in trouble, but that if they are struggling you have resources and options to help them. Then let the employee share if they feel comfortable and provide insurance-based options for them to use if they choose. The employee may deny or refuse, and that is their right. If that happens, providing some bottom lines and boundaries of acceptable behavior and expectations is the next step. If the employee does not improve, then follow your company’s policy for termination, just as you would with any other employee.
You may need to help the employee find resources, so research what the employer’s insurance plan has available and then any other secondary support that the company can offer. It is important the HR Director/Manager is a part of these conversations so they can explain to the employee their covered benefits, where they can go to seek treatment, and group or community resources.
If an employee takes leave from work, ensure there is a plan if/when they come back to work. One option is for employers to hire a recovery coach trained in SUD in the workplace to help put the returning employee on a path to success. A recovery coach does not replace the need for a licensed clinical therapist outside the work environment. A recovery coach will work with the employee on specific work-related skills, but also address the behaviors or work ethic issues that may have led to the employee's leave or possible termination. This may seem like an alien idea, but think of how this type of support, paid for by the company, could help improve the employee’s performance, give them a chance at true recovery, and create a fiercely loyal employee. It is an investment the company makes in the employee and an acknowledgment that they are worthy of a second opportunity to be successful in their job and life.
In my last blog, Bring Humanity Back Into Your Organization, I talked about the need for organizations to consider that providing a safe, friendly, and highly communicative organization builds trust and loyalty in your staff. Having a substance dependance program in place for your employees will help to create a supportive environment where employees feel taken care of by their employer, which can have an amazingly positive impact. When an organization prioritizes the health and well-being of their workers, staff retention rates rise and a positive company culture can flourish.
It is also essential that employers have clear boundaries and expectations, and hold employees to that standard. Accountability for employees with SUD is incredibly important. Many times, people who have substance use issues have found ways to get what they need or want, even if that means they manipulate someone in the process. They can be very good at hiding their struggles, deflecting, or distracting so they are not confronted. Creating boundaries is the first step that is taught within any family recovery program; therefore, even though they may be suffering from an illness, they are still responsible for their lives and what is required of them to do their jobs. Creating bottom lines are appropriate and should be used when you have not seen improvement in their performance.
Holiday parties, industry conferences, and happy hours are a great way to build connections and let off steam. These types of events can also be confronting to people suffering from alcohol dependence. When planning these events, make sure you choose a location or service that have non-alcoholic (NA) options. If you are planning a holiday party, make sure the bar has a fancy NA option for people who don't wish to drink for any number of reasons. This supports non-drinking employees and decreases the likelihood for them to be questioned by their peers. And as someone who no longer drinks, I always appreciate a fancy NA beverage!
Providing support, compassion, accountability, and resources to those suffering from substance use issues can break down stigma, help employees become successful in their lives and jobs, create an environment where employees feel safe and cared for, and continue to bring humanity into the workplace.