Monday, October 13, 2008

Is There an Addict in the Cubicle Next Door?

Six months ago on this blog I wrote about a smart and talented lawyer with four beautiful children who had a drug and alcohol addiction. The story, I said, was that of my cousin and her struggle for recovery in a world where she had once had it all -- but was stripped of nearly everything because of her battles with her addictions.

She died last week.

I had not seen her since my father's funeral eight years ago, but through family contacts I kept up with her health and addiction struggles. I'm not going to go into specifics, but suffice it to say because of her disease she at one point had lost custody of her children, divorced and lost her law license.

I debated writing this post, but after watching stress taking it's toll on everyone in this country because of the economy and the heated political atmosphere, I think it's important that we all make a promise to look out for one another. Addiction doesn't reside just on the street corner with junkies looking for the next fix -- it's also in the meeting rooms and boardrooms and cubicles where we work.

For my newspaper column earlier this year I interviewed Eric Goplerud a Ph.D. and the director of Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems at The George Washington University Medical Center, who told me that while workers’ alcohol problems cost employers millions of dollars each year and contribute to skyrocketing health insurance costs, the problem often is not effectively dealt with in the workplace.

“I think one of the reasons that more employers have not addressed this issue is because it’s perceived as a private issue in the life of an employee,” he said.

He told me that one of the most effective ways to help someone at work is to use what he called "AIM" – aim, inform and motivate.

“You go to someone and you say, ‘You know, you seem to be drinking more – how much are you drinking?’ Then, you inform them that what they’re drinking seems like an awful lot. Finally, you motivate them to get help, by expressing your concern and saying: ‘Have you thought about changing?’”

Goplerud also told me that even those who have not become alcoholics according to the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) guidelines are running a risk by drinking too much.

“What we’ve learned is that many people drink alcohol in ways that are unhealthy to themselves and others,” Goplerud says. “There’s no need for them to go to AA, but it does affect their health and there may be a need to go to counseling in order to handle the progression.”

He stressed that employers need to be aware of situations that can lead to overuse of alcohol by employees, such as workers who labor with little or no supervision or in remote locations – or who travel a lot for business. Also, younger workers (males under 21 have the highest alcohol dependencies) can be greatly influenced to drink more in a company culture where older employees drink heavily.

Unfortunately, research also shows that only 10 percent of working people with serious alcohol problems receive any kind of treatment, Goplerud said.

“This is a problem that is a whole lot easier to treat before it gets out of control,” he said.

You may not want to get involved in someone's addiction battles at work. After all, are you your colleague's keeper? In memory of my cousin, I sure hope so.


Anonymous said...

I am so sorry to hear about your cousin. What a tragic story. It is true that we should try to look out for each other in the workplace, and that it is difficult for employers to get involved with what might seem a "personal" matter.

A friend of mine works with someone who everyone "knows" is an alcoholic. The breath, coming in late, acting odd...But not odd enough for the employer to intervene. Sadly, they don't believe they can approach her about this problem until it begins to specifically impact her work.

To me, it seems like not installing a traffic light at an intersection until someone dies in an accident...

Anita said...

Thank you for your sympathies. I, too, worked with two different people whose mouth wash failed to disguise the smell of alcoho There were the late arrivals to work, the long lunch hours. We all talked about it, but the only thing the boss did was tell them to quit drinking on their lunch hours.
It does indeed feel like you're watching a horrible accident in slow motion. In my cousin's case, the result was tragic. I'm hoping more of us will go that extra step to help someone after reading this.
Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

I had an uncle who went through a similar thing. I think part of the problem is that alcoholism is treated as not as bad as say, a crack addict. So people just tend to think they can ignore it. Its really a sad situation and we need to not act like it should be a dirty little secret anymore.