What if a colleague has an alcohol problem…?

Written by Beth Gault Wednesday 10 November 2021
Alcoholism has become more common during the pandemic. Managers need to develop a culture where people can spot who is struggling and know how to respond
An image of vodka being poured into a glass with a computer keyboard in the background

Alison (not her real name) was just 14 years old when she first started drinking. “It was part of my life,” she says. “I always had alcohol around me from a young age. It was just accepted.”

While she started off slowly, drinking was encouraged as she grew up and again when she moved into the workplace. ‘Liquid lunches’ became a thing, so did being wined and dined while working away from home.

“It was encouraged – it was part of the whole ethos of doing business,” says Alison, who defines herself as a functional alcoholic.

After a few job changes within the marketing and advertising sector, she began working for her husband’s start-up. This meant working from home. “That’s when it really started, and I realised I had a problem. I joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but then one day I just had a glass of wine, and I was back off to drinking again,” she says.

During the next stretch of drinking, Alison had two part-time jobs. She lost both of them due to her drinking. “I wasn’t caught falling over or doing anything wrong,” she says. “But they could see I was late for work, my breath smelt, they could see I’d spiked my orange juice with vodka.”

Instead of offering help, her employers sacked her there and then. “I find it ironic that the human resources person who pulled me into the interview said, ‘you don’t have to tell me about Alcoholics Anonymous, my husband’s an alcoholic’. But she didn’t offer any support.”

Alison even lost her driving licence, but that wasn’t enough to make her quit drinking. “I’d think, ‘oh well, I can’t drive for a year so I can carry on drinking’. That’s the logic of it all.”

There wasn’t a particular moment that sparked Alison’s sobriety, except that she’d ‘had enough’. She’s now been sober for five years. Looking back, she wishes she’d been offered more support from her workplace – that people had pushed her more to get help.

Being a functional alcoholic can completely pull the wool over people’s eyes, she explains, particularly if you don’t know what to look for. “But in the workplace, where a dialogue can be started – informally – about how much people are drinking, you might find people who are really looking for help, or someone saying I wish I knew somewhere I could go. That’s where the employer could jump in and say: this is what you can do.”

Rising numbers of alcoholics

Laura Jarvis from the Alcohol and Drug Service says alcohol issues such as Alison’s have increased over the past year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have heard stories of people who perhaps live alone, who suddenly went from working in a busy office with groups of friends and a big social network to being really isolated and cut off from all the usual enjoyment or meeting friends,” she says.

In these circumstances, many have turned to drugs and alcohol. A recent study by UCL’s Department of Behavioural Science and Health found that over a third of people (34%) reported a change in their drinking habits over the past year, with almost half of those drinking more than they did before (49%).

Ruari Fairbairns is from the habit-changing programme One Year No Beer. He says it’s ‘hugely important’ that employees are offered support from their workplaces. Businesses have a key role to play, even more so following lockdown.

“It is hugely important that workers are offered sufficient help and support to cope with alcohol use and anxiety. The bonuses for both employer and employee are huge – people who take control of their relationship with alcohol are more productive and healthier.”

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What does support look like?

Laura Jarvis from the Alcohol and Drug Service says the best time to start offering support is early. She runs a service called Generis, offering training and support for employers on dealing with drugs and alcohol. “I have had people in front of me who have lost everything as a result of their drinking, and they can’t understand how it happened,” she says.

In reality, it often starts with a glass of wine of an evening to relax. Then it spirals. “Six months later, they’re drinking four bottles a night and they’ve lost their job.”

Laura is encouraging more initial training in the workplace to help employees spot the signs – both for themselves and their colleagues. Companies usually work with the Alcohol and Drug Service after an incident has occurred, but people are realising that it’s an issue that can affect everybody across all sectors, and levels of seniority. Training and awareness can also help develop a habit of looking out for each other.

Managers should develop a culture where people can spot that somebody is perhaps struggling and knows how to respond. “It might be a mental health problem, a relationship breakdown, it might be a bereavement, it might be a drug and alcohol problem. But actually, if you don’t tackle these things, they’re not just going to magically go away.”

Learn more: Learn about spotting the signs of stress and poor mental health in yourself and those around around you in this webinar for managers and leaders.

Laura says that if people feel they can approach their manager and get support early, then everyone wins. “The employee feels better and avoids more troubles down the road, their family feels better and has a better relationship with them, and the employer retains an employee who adds value to their business. It’s a no-brainer.”

CMI has partnered with Kooth, the UK’s leading online mental health platform, to provide our members with a free, safe and anonymous space for online support and counselling. Whether you are worried about yourself or a colleague, log in to find more articles about alcohol use and speak to the Qwell professionals.

Image: Shutterstock/sophiecat

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