Frontline Supervisor: Alcohol and the Workplace

Frontline Supervisor: Alcohol and the Workplace

On 11 Oct 2016, in Management, Alcoholism, Workplace, substance abuse

Each month, "The Balance Sheet" provides questions and answers from experts on a topic that's important to you as a manager. Please feel free to share this information with other colleagues who also manage people. 

Q. I caught our mechanic drinking a beer on duty. He quickly admitted he was an alcoholic and said he was going back to counseling and AA. I was impressed with his sincerity and felt relief, so I let the incident slide. I thought, “Okay, he is on the right track.” Was I manipulated?

A. Yes, you were manipulated, but your employee may have also been completely sincere. Sincerity, of course, does not translate to the proper treatment steps. So you should have acted on your organization’s drug and alcohol policy. How can you be manipulated at the same time your employee is being sincere? The answer lies in the nature of the disease. A crisis — caught drinking on the job — is enough for the alcoholic to experience a convincing sense of urgency (never-again determination) to stop drinking. However, the nature of the disease dictates its course, not willpower. This sense of urgency dissipates when withdrawal symptoms return. So, the likelihood of self-referral to treatment is low, but it can be heartfelt and sincere in the moment.

Q. My employee was unable to stick with a treatment program for alcoholism. Unfortunately, the employee’s job was lost due to the relapse. Why do some employees recover while others do not? I can’t help but think the relapse was somehow partly my fault.

A. As with the treatment of any chronic condition, the burden of following instructions and managing a program of recovery from alcoholism rests with the alcoholic (patient). A frustrating part of alcoholism is relapse. Your wondering if you could have prevented it is a natural response. However, the relapse is not your fault. A universal tenet in all effective treatment models is that patients are responsible for their own recovery. There can be many reasons for a relapse, including inadequate treatment, inefficient or inadequate follow-up, concurrent mental health or physical problems, provocative and nonsupportive living environments, failure to follow instructions, poor education about the illness and relationships with codependent persons who undermine recovery. A failure to change one’s lifestyle is often another cause of relapse. The best way you can help your employees is by better understanding the disease with help from BJC EAP, referring employees when performance issues appear and holding them accountable for their own conduct or performance.

Q. I am sure there are employees in our work organization using illicit substances. I understand enabling, but what causes people to enable when they know how bad they’d feel if a terrible drug/alcohol-related crisis resulted or someone got killed?


A. Most people understand enabling as protecting, covering up and making excuses for a coworker or friend with an addiction problem, but stopping enabling is not as easy as it sounds. To stop enabling a friend or coworker with a severe personal problem requires making choices that may create significant stress, guilt and feelings of loss. The decision requires the enabler to experience personal sacrifice associated with changing their behavior. To no longer enable, therefore, is not a simple decision. It can have life-changing consequences for the enabler, and these are difficult for most people to face. The enabler usually manages this choice with procrastination, denial, minimization (“It’s bad but not that bad,” “She’s a functional alcoholic,” etc.) and projection (“It’s not my job to deal with it”). The result is cover-up and protection of the drug user.




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