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How Is Alcohol Affecting the Workplace?

Until recently, the scope of alcohol’s impact on the workforce has not been well-studied or well-understood. However, a recent study revealed that heavy drinking accounts for over 232 million missed work days every year.

Using survey data from about 110,000 U.S. adults, researchers found that respondents who regularly abused alcohol reported missing an average of 32 work days annually, compared to those who didn’t drink (13 days). The reasons for missing work (also referred to as absenteeism) ranged from illness and injury to simply skipping. Alcohol-related absenteeism was most common among men, younger workers, White and Hispanic respondents and those with lower incomes. Additionally, nine percent of respondents – about 11 million full-time workers – met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is defined as chronic uncontrollable drinking and preoccupation with alcohol despite its adverse effects.

“Alcohol use disorder is a major problem in the United States and a big problem in many workplaces, where it contributes to a significant number of workdays missed,” said the study’s senior investigator Laura J. Beirut. “The problem likely has worsened during the pandemic, and we need to try to do more to ensure that people can get the help they need to deal with alcohol use disorder. The new data also point to an economic incentive for employers and policymakers to address the issue.”

Absenteeism is three to eight times greater among people who abuse alcohol. However, absenteeism is not the only problem associated with heavy alcohol use. Those who abuse alcohol also have higher incidences of presenteeism, which is defined as being on the job but not performing at full capacity due to illness or injury. More importantly, presenteeism comes with an increased risk for workplace injury. On-the-job incidents caused by inebriation or hangovers are five times more likely to result in an injury. This is likely due to alcohol’s adverse effects on mental function, such as decreased pattern recognition, reasoning, detection of auditory and visual stimuli, ability to divide attention, time estimation, hazard perception, coordination and general reaction time.

The Employer’s Role in Addressing Alcohol Use Disorder

Since full-time workers spend around eight hours a day at work, an employer could be among the first to recognize absenteeism, presenteeism or other behaviors related to substance abuse. Typically, employees who miss a lot of work are at risk for losing their jobs, but instead of firing them, employers can intervene and take action to assist with their recovery.

It’s not a supervisor’s responsibility to diagnose AUD or any other substance use disorder. However, it is their job to keep jobsites safe. Supervisors can learn to identify the warning signs and responsibly address any performance or conduct problems. They can also provide available resources and support a workplace culture that expresses care and concern for workers’ health and safety.

Some of the warning signs that a worker may be struggling with AUD include:

  • Excessive unexplained absences or tardiness
  • Patterns of absence, such as the day after payday or on Mondays or Fridays
  • Long periods of absence from a workstation
  • Coming back late from breaks
  • Careless or sloppy work
  • Strained relationships with coworkers
  • Smelling of alcohol
  • Appearing impaired or unsteady
  • Mood and behavior changes
  • Excessive use of mouthwash or breath mints to disguise alcohol odor

Possible next steps:

  • If there is an immediate concern someone is under the influence of alcohol on the job, remove them right away. Do not let them drive themselves home.
  • Supervisor consultation: A supervisor can meet privately with an employee to discuss their concerns based on specific behavior they’ve noticed. Be prepared with resources such as contact info for an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or resources available through the local health and welfare fund. Involve the Local Union during this process.
  • Education on a jobsite: Promote open communication around alcohol. Check out LHSFNA publications on alcohol for available resources.

Alcohol is the single most used and abused drug in America. There are many reasons people drink: to celebrate, to relax or to ease social pressure, for example. But more and more evidence suggests that as little as one drink a day can be detrimental to health and can impact work performance. While moderate alcohol consumption is unlikely to affect day-to-day responsibilities, people who find themselves repeatedly calling out or feeling unable to work after a night of drinking may want to evaluate their relationship with alcohol. Employers who notice this behavior in an employee should be prepared to responsibly address the issue.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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