What to do if you suspect an employee has an alcohol problem | Moorepay
June 22, 2024

What to do if you suspect an employee has an alcohol problem

Unfortunately, there are more people battling with alcohol issues than many of us realise, this can affect us personally and professionally.

According to the CIPD over a quarter of people said their alcohol consumption has increased as a result of the COVID-19.

As a manager, it’s a difficult and problematic time when you suspect an employee could have an alcohol problem and you will most likely have a swarm of questions running through your mind. For example, when does the habit of drinking alcohol become a problem, an addiction? How do you address an employee you have concerns about? Should you refer the employee to a third party for help?

This article is designed to help you answer any questions you might have, helping you to handle the situation like a pro.

The Legal Position

The difficultly with alcohol use is that it is not an illegal act, however it can still impact the ability for an employee to carry out their duties. Alcohol dependency in and of itself is not a protected characteristic and therefore not covered by the Equality Act 2010.

However, employers should be mindful that there may be underlying or connected issues which would be covered by the act, such as mental health issues, stress related illness or an illness caused by alcohol abuse i.e. liver disease.

Furthermore, employers have a general duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees and the employees must also take reasonable care of themselves or anyone who could be affected by their work. Finally, the common law principles of vicarious liability are often important in the law surrounding alcohol and drugs in the workplace.

The legal test for vicarious liability basically means that employers will be liable for wrongful acts of employees that are carried out in the course of employment and sufficiently closely connected with the employment, to justify the imposition of liability. Employers are therefore exposed to liability when there is an increased risk of inappropriate behaviour and injury from alcohol or drug consumption, for example at an office party.

Identifying the signs of an employee with an alcohol problem

The quicker you identify an employee with an alcohol problem the easier it will be for you to handle the situation. As a manager, the first warning signs that you are likely to notice will be work related, which will include some (or all) of the following:

  • Often being late to work and/or an increase in absenteeism.
  • Unreliability, forgetting tasks and missing deadlines.
  • Preoccupied at work and in meetings, not able to focus.
  • Erratic behaviour, such as excessive laughing and loudly speaking.
  • Uncalculated risk-taking, making decisions without considering the facts.
  • Arriving at work, or returning from lunch, smelling of alcohol.
  • Arriving late at or completely missing business appointments and meetings.
  • Neglecting their appearance.
  • Bloodshot eyes and/or inability to focus.
  • Excessive use of chewing gum, breath mints and mouthwash.
  • Odd behaviours with their drinks bottle/ preparing drinks.
  • Falling asleep at work.
  • Avoiding supervisors, particularly after lunch.
  • Noticeable shaking/tremoring.

Though these are the first things you might notice, they are not the only warning signs. Looking at the employee on a personal level might give you a stronger indication of whether there is a problem. Consider speaking to other workers who know the employee of concern well, they might have a better insight, however you should proceed with caution as you do not want to cause the individual embarrassment or shame, so keep the questions generic i.e. ‘Is everything ok with NAME, they seem out of sorts?’. Here are some additional warning signs:

  • Drinking alone, turning up to social events smelling of alcohol or partially drunk.
  • Blackouts in memory where the individual cannot remember what has happened.
  • A change in personality, for example, more depressed, anxious, drop in self-esteem.
  • A change in who the employee is spending time with, i.e. a new group of friends.
  • Constantly asking for money or seeming to be broke.
  • Uneasy in situations/events where there is no alcohol available.

Tips on speaking to an employee you think has an alcohol problem

After you have identified that you think there is an issue you must act fast and deal with the situation by requesting a meeting with the employee. It may make you feel more comfortable to have someone else in the meeting with you, such as an HR representative, but try to keep it to only one or two people so the employee doesn’t feel victimised.

Once you have arranged a meeting it is a good idea to get some information together, such as previous performance reviews, attendance statistics and an information leaflet on support options, for example. Here are some tips you should keep in mind when speaking to your employee:

  • Avoid using the word addiction, there is a stigma attached to the term which makes it harder for someone to admit that they have a problem.
  • Be prepared, expect that your employee with be in denial, that they may become defensive, even slightly angry at the situation.
  • Adopt a caring approach to dealing with your employee, express your concern over their behaviour and their potential alcohol problem.
  • Use open, non-judgemental questions to start the conversation e.g. ‘You’ve looked very tired recently, how are you feeling’ may elicit more of a response than ‘Is everything alright?’ (to which they may just say ‘Yes’).
  • Approach your employee with facts and statistics, such as “we smelt alcohol on your breath before this meeting”, or “you have been late to work eight times this month”. Avoid saying “we/I think that you have a problem” so that the employee doesn’t feel like it is a personal attack.
  • Show the employee the impact that their potential alcohol problem is having on their work performance and on their team, express how you believe addressing the concern could improve the employee’s job performance.
  • If you feel it is necessary, make the employee aware that their behaviour and low job performance may put their job at risk.
  • Stress the intention is to try to support them.
  • Recommending that the employee speaks to their GP or Occupational Health (if you have a provider) is an option but it could be met with reluctance, in which case remind the employee of anything you already have on offer such as counselling via an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Provide them with the details of a few different people they can contact to get help with their problem and support them in terms of giving them time off work, if necessary, to attend clinics and group sessions.
  • Speak to your employee about the stress they are feeling at work and things that you as a manager can do to reduce it.

Any manager who cares about his/her staff will feel a certain responsibility for their well-being, however, in this situation a manager cannot take full responsibility for making the employee face their addiction. Someone who is addicted to alcohol will only ever be able to change if they are willing to admit that they have a problem and face their addiction, as a manager all you can do is help them to take this first step and support them in their journey to recovery.

Remember, you are not a medical professional, you are not trained to diagnose an addiction in anyone. You are there to support your staff, to ensure they work to their full potential and to help them whenever you have concerns over their well-being.

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Benjamin Brown
About the author

Benjamin Brown

Benjamin is the Content Marketing Executive at Moorepay. He recently joined the team after graduating with an MSc is Advertising. He has experience in advertising, copywriting, content creation and marketing.