‘I think my colleague is an alcoholic. What should I do?’

This was covered in The Telegraph back in October and was an excellent response to the reader question about concerns about a work colleague and their drinking.

work dilemmaI’m worried about a colleague and would like your advice. He’s known in the office as a bit of a party boy and often arrives late looking like he’s had a big night out – it’s become a standing joke. But I’m concerned the problem is worse than people think; I recently went on a week-long business trip with him and when he did show up for meetings – he missed most – he either seemed drunk or badly hungover. I’ve been asked by our mutual boss to give feedback on how he performed, but don’t know whether to tell the real story. He’s had one warning already for poor performance and I really don’t want him to lose his job – but I think he needs help. What should I do?

The wider problem

Alcohol and substance abuse in the workplace can create challenges for employers, the employee concerned and their colleagues. There is no ‘one size fits all’ rule for how such issues should be handled.

If a concern is identified, firms can approach it as a disciplinary, health or performance issue (or a combination) with support likely to include specialist counselling, referral to occupational health practitioners, a formal professional intervention – and/or the use of internal disciplinary procedures.

Employees with an alcohol problem have the same rights to support and confidentiality as they would if they had any other medical or psychological condition.

And the problem is huge. The TUC’s Worksmart initiative estimates that up to 17 million working days – between three and five per cent of all absences – are lost each year due to alcohol, while sickness absence due to alcohol is estimated to cost the UK economy over £7.3 billion a year.

In a 2007 survey by the CIPD, Managing Alcohol and Drug Misuse at Work, four out of ten respondents identified the consumption of alcohol as a significant cause or very significant cause of employee absence and lost productivity.

Where to start

You think that your colleague is drinking too much and that it’s impairing his ability to work, based on your recent experience of being on a business trip together.

Your concern for his health and your fears for his job security are absolutely understandable – although it’s important not to make assumptions. Heavy drinkers aren’t necessarily alcoholics.

If your question has been purely about how to act on these concerns, I’d have advised you to have a quiet and tactful talk with your colleague, with the aim of being collaborative rather than confrontational – remembering that if he is in denial then he may quickly become defensive.

However, you’ve been asked explicitly by your boss to comment on his performance – and you need to respond honestly.

Don’t feel guilty

Your fundamental dilemma here arises because you cannot dictate your employer’s response to this issue, and you need to accept that. Once in receipt of new information, your manager will need to take it forward and you will likely be left out of the loop in order to protect your colleague’s right to confidentiality.

While it may feel uncomfortable to ‘hand over’ responsibility, please keep in mind that you cannot and should not deal with this on your own – and shielding your colleague from the consequences of his actions out of kindness may actually do more harm than good.

Remember too, that it’s in your firm’s interests – business as well as human – to offer proactive support. Addiction is a disease, and it can be treated successfully. Ideally, your company should have a clear policy on drug and alcohol use, which would set out the support mechanisms in place for employees. It’s likely to be more cost-effective for them to allow him time off to obtain expert help rather than trying to replace him.

If they ignore the problem, there are likely to be implications on team productivity and morale, as well as your colleague’s health.

Disciplinary action should be a last resort, and indeed a dismissal could be deemed unfair by a court, if an employer makes no attempt to help someone whose work problems are related to alcohol abuse. And if he does eventually lose his job because of this, remember it’s not your fault, and it could be the trigger he needs to seek help.

What to say to your boss

You can try set the tone for your firm’s initial response by emphasising your concern and personal support. Your boss may simply be expecting you to send a quick email summarising what happened on your business trip.

Don’t do this.

Instead, meet face to face, and explain verbally and compassionately why you’re concerned about your colleague. Try not use to judgemental, accusatory or labelling language – at this stage focus on what you observed, rather than expressing any assumptions you’ve made.

If you feel your boss may not handle the information well – he’ll need to be aware of your company’s policy but may not necessarily be – you could bring HR into the conversation too, so they can take it forward together.

For more information about spotting signs of alcohol and substance abuse, and managing these issues in the workplace, check out the following sources:

  1. Drink Aware: Fact checker if you’re concerned about drinking
  2. Health and Safety: A guide for employers on alcohol at work
  3. Alcoholics Anonymous: Is there an alcoholic in the workplace?
  4. British Heart Foundation guide to alcohol at work

Good luck.

I’m no HR manager but that seemed a pretty fair response to the issue.  What do you think?

4 thoughts on “‘I think my colleague is an alcoholic. What should I do?’

  1. Yes, that seems a fair response to the issue. Nice article, thank you for forwarding it. It seems like you have so much more media attention for alcohol related problems in the UK than we have in the Netherlands.

    1. You’re welcome feeling 🙂 That’s interesting that UK media cover booze more than the Netherlands so thank you for sharing! xx

  2. Definitely a fair response, but I feel bad for the co-worker being put in this position by the manager. 17 million working days lost to alcohol? That’s staggering! xx

    1. It is isn’t it Lori? And that’s for absenteeism. How many times did I turn up for work hungover and not fully able to do my job too? Once you factor in presenteeism too the loss of revenue is truly staggering! xx

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