Is that your take on alcoholism? You would recognise an alcoholic straight away – most of them live on a park bench, and the others are always drunk and really violent. And if anyone confessed to a problem, would they be sacked immediately?
Actually, it is not as easy as that.
Alcoholics like these do exist, but they are a minority: there is no such thing as a typical alcoholic. Many of them continue to function, and hold down responsible jobs, sometimes at a very senior level. They can be male, female, young, old, rich, poor, pleasant or unpleasant. Some are social drinkers, some drink alone in a bar, and some drink at home. Also, it is not quantity which defines an alcoholic: it is the inability to control drinking.
This not to deny that alcohol is a problem. According to the charity Brake, up to 35% of road deaths worldwide are related to drunk driving, and working in a warehouse while drunk is equally dangerous. Both are unacceptable. On the other hand, addiction is a serious mental health issue which must be treated as such. Sacking people at the first hint of a problem will result in the problem remaining hidden, and increase rather than decrease the likelihood of drunk driving. Establishing a policy which takes account of both these issues is a difficult challenge, but it is one which must be met.
Most non-recovering alcoholics deny, even to themselves, that there is a problem. They may blame some external factor, and convince themselves that drinking is helping to relieve stress, whereas actually it does the opposite. They may be able to exert some control, for example not drinking for a few days, and use this to convince themselves that they are not alcoholics. In reality, unless someone is prepared to admit to alcoholism, or indeed any other form of addiction, they will not be able to begin recovery.
Once that important step has been taken, help can at last be given. It is extremely rare for an alcoholic to be able to stop drinking without help.
Some also misuse alcohol. This is not the same thing as addiction, and we refer to its use as in too great a quantity and/or at the wrong time. Some non-alcoholics regularly drink too much, with a long term effect on their health. Others drink to excess only occasionally, perhaps at a party, and some people only get drunk once in a lifetime. A driver who drinks two pints on Friday night, and next drives on Monday morning, is not misusing alcohol. However, if they drink two pints in the middle of a shift, or eight pints the night before, they would be.
I strongly recommend that every organisation establishes a drug and alcohol policy. This should be designed to deal with problems quickly, effectively, and consistently; to protect employees and others; and at the same time encourage people to seek help.
The policy might include:
- Recognition that an alcoholism is illness
- Providing education and training for managers
- The importance of early identification and treatment
- Assurance of confidentiality
- Help available, from managers, supervisors, company doctor, occupational health departments, or outside organisations
- Is alcohol testing included?
- The disciplinary position. In my opinion this should be very different where an employee comes forward, admits to a problem, and seeks help; compared to a case in which they admit the problem only after being found working under the influence of drink
- Provision of paid sick leave for agreed treatment
- The individual’s right to return to the same job after effective treatment and any conditions that may apply, such as the use of alcohol locks on vehicles
- Whether a second course of treatment will be allowed in the event of a relapse
- Termination of employment on grounds of ill health where treatment is unsuccessful
- Policy with respect to convictions for offenses outside the workplace.
Some would say that different policies should apply to different groups of employees, but I would disagree. For example, a stock record clerk might not be in immediate danger while sitting at a computer screen, but may carelessly leave a trip hazard for others in the office. Or might need to enter a more dangerous area, for example going into the warehouse to check on some stock. To suggest that a truck driver should be dismissed for drunk driving, but that a sales director who does so after entertaining customers should retain their job, is to my mind indefensible. My view is that the policy should apply equally to everyone.
There are several types of treatment available. There is no right or wrong type: different people respond better or less well to each. Indeed, many find that they need more than one type of help in order to enter recovery. Anyone with a drink problem would be well-advised to consult their doctor, but some, understandably, prefer not to do so.
- Alcoholics Anonymous, the most famous organisation, which has helped millions of people world-wide to achieve sobriety since it was founded in the 1930s.
- Tribe Sober, an international online network – hold workshops and meetups via Zoom – 8 step program for subscription members – tribesober.com
- Other self-help groups. There are countless smaller organisations, many of which do excellent work
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). This is based on the idea that one’s thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected
- Counselling. This might be a brief intervention, perhaps as little as 10 minutes, which can be effective where someone is not yet addicted. Longer, repeated sessions will be needed in more serious cases.
- Medication. This should only be used when prescribed by a medical practitioner
- Residential care. Typically, a 28-day period, during which a variety of therapies are offered. This can be expensive if you are self-funding, but many people will feel that is justified, as it may save their life.
Alcohol policies require a difficult balancing act. On the one hand driving and other activities whilst under the influence can be very dangerous, but on the other, alcoholism (and drug addiction) are serious and life-threatening illnesses which should be treated as sympathetically as any other illness.
Implementing a drug and alcohol policy will in narrow terms cost money, but this should be more than offset by benefits in improved productivity and reduced accident rates.
There are legal obligations on employers to manage this issue, to prevent employees becoming a danger to themselves or others. I would strongly recommend the drafting and implementation of a drug and alcohol policy by every company as a key step in doing so.
– Jerry Rudd
Jerry Rudd is the author of “Health and Safety in Logistics”, published by Kogan Page, which is available on the Publisher’s website or on Amazon. This includes chapters on mental health and drug and alcohol policies, as well as on other aspects of Health and Safety.