How to Help an Alcoholic Colleague or Employee

Alcoholism can affect anyone, and that includes any level of employee within a company. Whether it’s the person sat across the desk from you, or someone you rely on for guidance and leadership, the condition does not discriminate.

It is a difficult thing to deal with in any situation, but within the workplace, it poses very specific challenges. It can have disastrous effects on productivity and morale, and the health of your colleague or employee can quickly degrade.

As a result, it is important to understand the signs of alcoholism in the workplace, how to approach someone if you suspect that they may need help, and what you can do to support them going forward.

Spotting alcoholism in the workplace

It’s difficult to spot alcoholism. Knowing the difference between substance abuse and casual drinking can be tough, so you need to be careful.

If you suspect that someone you work with is struggling, it is important to be able to identify some of the signs before you approach them.

In the workplace, a combination of some of the following behaviours may be an indication that an individual is being affected by alcoholism:

  • Avoiding responsibilities or failing to produce work as a result of alcohol use.
  • Using alcohol just before, during, or immediately after finishing the workday.
  • Entering the workplace hungover or smelling of alcohol.
  • Spending a lot of work time speaking about, planning to use, or recovering from the heavy use of alcohol.
  • Using alcohol in spite of its effect on a pre-existing condition, such as depression or liver failure.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms during the workday, which tend to be similar to those of a common cold or flu.

Although it could be caused by various other factors, a decrease in an individual’s work performance could also be a sign of alcoholism.

If they frequently make simple mistakes, or they miss a lot of deadlines, along with some of the behaviours listed above, alcoholism could be the cause.

The effects of alcoholism at work

It can be difficult to decide whether you should get involved with a colleague’s addiction. You may not be very close to them, and so approaching them about a very personal condition might seem like a risky thing to do.

In order to make an informed decision, it may be worth considering the following possible effects of alcoholism on the workplace if left alone:

  • Decreased productivity – Alcohol accounts for a significant percentage of workplace absences every year [1].
  • Alcohol-induced injuries or accidents in the workplace.
  • Poor morale, or increased tensions between employees.
  • Bad habits influencing the behaviour of other employees.
  • Damage to the company’s image or reputation when dealing with clients or customers.

It is important to note that the main effects of alcoholism will be on the physical, emotional, and mental health of the individual.

Impacts on the workplace and fellow employees will be a result of the degraded well-being of the person struggling.

1. Approaching a colleague

If you make the decision to approach someone at work about their alcoholism, it is essential to prepare in the following ways.

2. Speak to a superior

Before attempting to approach the individual, try speaking to your boss or a member of the Human Resources team. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, it is important to make any superiors responsible for your team aware of the situation and your intentions. There could be negative repercussions on team relations, and so it is best that they know.

Secondly, the Human Resources department will likely have lots of information to offer you about alcoholism within the workplace. It is also their job to keep track of these kinds of situations, so informing them is necessary.

3. Ensure privacy

When you approach the individual, make sure that there is no one else around. Carefully consider where and when you do it.

Alcoholism is a very personal condition, and so it is best to avoid the possibility of anyone hearing or seeing your conversation. The individual may be embarrassed or annoyed, and if they are not an alcoholic, they may not want everyone thinking that they are.

Ask to speak to them privately, either in a quiet office or somewhere outside of work, and make sure no one else is going to be around.

4. Be clear and honest

When speaking to the individual, be open about your intentions. Tell them that you have noticed their behaviour, and that you are concerned about the effect it may have on them and the people around them.

Due to the sensitivity of the topic, you may feel inclined to avoid being direct. It might feel easier to subtly ease into the subject, but this can cause problems.

Being secretive or allusive when speaking to the individual may cause them to behave in the same way. If you do not approach them about alcoholism directly, they will not respond to your concerns in a genuine way.

Instead, they may avoid your hints, or become angry at what you are suggesting. Being honest will increase the chances of them considering what you have to say.

5. Offer support

It is essential that alcoholism is approached with care. When discussing it, be supportive of the individual.

The impacts of their condition may cause you to feel frustrated with them, but speaking from a place of judgement or anger will only push them away. They may feel attacked, and therefore not listen to your pleas for them to seek help.

Instead, you need to offer them support and reassurance. Identify the problems with their behaviour, but remain calm and compassionate about what they can do to make things better. Only then will they seriously consider what you are saying.

6. Establish consequences

If a colleague or employee is struggling, you might feel like you need to help them get by. Doing work for them, clocking in for them when they are late, or covering for their absences might seem like helpful favours, but they are not.

The individual needs to understand that they cannot continue drinking to their current extent. Helping them get away with doing so will only reinforce the behaviour, and they won’t feel inclined to seek support.

Once the problem has been identified, it is important to communicate that there will be consequences if the individual does not try to improve their situation. This might involve them having less responsibility, or possibly losing their job altogether.

While you want to support them in seeking help, they need to understand that they cannot continue drinking without consequences.

Ways to provide support

Once you have approached a colleague or employee, and drawn their attention to their alcoholism, it is important that you follow it up with support.

The individual will now be vulnerable, and so will need help in starting and progressing through their recovery journey.

1. Encouraging them to seek help

The most important way to support an individual is to assist them in getting medical help. Encourage them to speak to their GP or an alcohol abuse organisation.

They can then discuss the details of their situation and find the most suitable treatment path going forward.

Seeking help is the first step in attaining Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT), where individuals learn to replace harmful thought processes with healthier alternatives, or medicinal supplements, which help relieve them from their physical dependency on alcohol.

2. Offer time to seek expert help

If you are the boss of an individual, it can be a massive help to them if you offer them time away from work to focus on their rehabilitation.

Therapies such as CBT, while helpful, may take a while to influence an individual’s thinking and behaviours. Along with work, this process can take even longer.

Offering them time away from work to focus solely on getting to grips with therapy can be a huge boost to an individual’s recovery, and help them get through it and back to work a lot faster.

3. Inform and support other colleagues

When an individual returns to the office, they will need support from their colleagues.

Recovery places them in a much better position to function without alcohol, but they will still be vulnerable to relapse, and so will count on the care and help of their co-workers to get by.

Educating staff about how alcoholism affects the brain, what impacts it has on health, and what the individual might be experiencing after recovery, can all improve the quality of their support going forward [2].

Having an informed office surrounding the individual can also help them feel less ashamed of their condition.

If they are supported by people who know how difficult their rehabilitation has been, as well as how challenging the battle with relapse is, they will feel much more secure and confident in their recovery going forward.