Do you associate alcohol addiction with workplace events, like a group of coworkers at a happy hour on a Friday afternoon? No, but perhaps you should. Nearly 50 million Americans struggle with addiction, and alcohol is the most common culprit. Drinking is pervasive throughout our culture, with almost half of all Americans over age 12 reporting current alcohol use. Given this, the signs of a drinking problem can go unseen, even when they’re in plain sight.
A survey on substance use in the workplace conducted by American Addiction Centers (AAC) found that two-thirds of respondents had consumed alcohol during work hours in the past. For some, a keg in the kitchen or a champagne celebration after hitting a big milestone may be viewed as a workplace perk. But drinking at work gatherings represents a serious hazard and liability for companies, which lose anywhere from $33 billion–$68 billion every year because of alcohol abuse and resulting accidents, loss of productivity, and employee health complications.
Drinking and the workplace have a complicated relationship as more companies implement “beer fridges,” happy hours, and other means for employees to easily access alcohol while at work. HR professionals must take a closer look at alcohol in the workplace.
Is Your Team at a Higher Risk for Alcohol Abuse?
While alcoholism is very often influenced by genetics, work environment can also play a part. For example, studies have found a correlation between high-stress jobs and higher rates of alcohol addiction. Jobs that require long shifts or inconsistent working hours also see a spike. It’s also more common to find alcohol abuse among workers who have highly physical job duties and whose bodies are often under more stress or strain.
Notice that these factors have little to do with education level or income. Take a look at the wide variety of industries with some of the highest levels of alcohol abuse:
- Mining: This field puts immense physical strain on workers, who show the highest rates of heavy alcohol use.
- Law: With long hours common, one in five lawyers reports drinking problems, especially binge drinking.
- Construction: When asked about heavy drinking in the previous month, over 16% reported it had been an issue.
- Health care: Nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals manage difficult work hours, and over 15% reported alcohol abuse was a problem in a 2014 study.
- Hospitality: Nearly 12% of workers in restaurants, bars, and hotels report facing alcohol addiction.
If a manager or executive notices signs of alcohol abuse—like regular absenteeism, inconsistent job performance, or other physical or behavioral symptoms—it’s time to get involved.
But before it gets that far, HR leaders have an opportunity to focus on prevention.
How HR Professionals Can Lessen the Risk of Alcohol Abuse
As one of your company’s most crucial leadership groups, the HR team can provide a first line of defense against alcohol abuse by keeping certain precautions and sensitivities in mind.
- Remember that alcohol is not a requirement to include at any function. When it is present, it should never be required for all employees to attend. If there’s a happy hour planned or free beer in the kitchen, pushing participation is never a safe strategy. Try planning some events and activities that don’t include drinking at all, whether it’s a group hike or a teambuilding exercise. Also, be conscious of shift length and giving appropriate break time.
- Prioritize mental health openly and honestly. AAC recommends that all companies have an open-door policy for employees at any level to ask for help and that HR teams be prepared to guide them toward the best resources possible. For example, try to make employee assistance programs available, and ensure that staff are aware of them. You can even provide the group with a 24-hour nurse line or help line because, of course, not everyone may feel comfortable coming to you for assistance with a highly personal issue.
- Recognize addiction for what it is: a brain disease. It deserves to be treated just like any other disease—no social stigma, embarrassment, or punishment attached. Your company’s perspective should align with that truth and have policies in place that allow employees to take time off for treatment—the same way you would for any other illness.
More than 7% of American adults struggle with an alcohol use disorder, and it’s fair to assume someone at your company may be included in that group. For HR leaders dedicated to employee well-being, be open to assessing factors that might put your team at risk. Be proactive in making a workplace culture change to ensure all employees feel safe and supported.
Dr. Lawrence Weinstein was appointed chief medical officer of AAC in 2018. In his career spanning more than 20 years, Weinstein has gained extensive experience in senior leadership, having worked for some of the largest healthcare companies in the country. His past work in psychotherapeutic services, family therapy, psychoanalysis, and addiction psychiatry makes him a uniquely well-rounded physician executive. Throughout his career, Weinstein has set the standard for clinical and operational excellence, physician management, and driving technology solutions that support clinical innovation. He brings this experience and an unwavering commitment to patient care to his role as AAC’s chief medical officer, overseeing medical operations for all facilities and supervising the medical staff to ensure the highest quality of care.