Thursday, August 12, 2010

Are You Enabling an Alcoholic Co-Worker?

In one of my first jobs, I worked with a woman who always had the smell of what I thought was a really potent mouthwash on her breath.

I was young and naive, and it was only later than someone clued me in: It was mouthwash --mixed with a little (actually, a lot) of Wild Turkey.

That was my first experience of being around an alcoholic at work. But it would not be my last. In fact, I can't recall a job where there wasn't at least one person who didn't have a drinking problem. Whether it was hiding the alcohol in a Gatorade bottle, sneaking booze at lunch or just getting hammered every night before stumbling in late the next morning, I know many people fight such addictions.

One thing I had not considered before was how colleagues enable an alcoholic at work. It's an issue I explored for my latest Gannett/ column:

Kate Webster yawns while talking on the phone mid-morning. “Excuse me,” she says. “I was doing an intervention until 3 a.m.”

Webster is a busy person these days. As a certified addiction specialist and founder of Alpha Intervention, she’s dealing with what she sees as a worsening problem – addiction in the workplace. As a recruiting executive who was also an alcoholic, Webster knows first-hand the devastation alcoholics have not only their families, but their workplace.

Webster, now “proudly” sober for 10 years, works with companies that have executives with substance abuse problems. It’s when things get really bad that Webster says she receives a call.

“Somebody hits rock bottom, and it’s never the alcoholic,” she says. “That’s when someone will reach outside for help. It happens in families – and it’s the same thing in a workplace.”

Webster says the increasing stress of the workplace has led many to spiral into addictions such as alcoholism. When it’s an executive, an entire organization can be threatened as the key decision maker’s abilities are hampered by his or her addiction. She says while alcoholism knows no age or income bracket, she often works with lawyers, doctors, Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley executives.

So as television shows like “Mad Men” often show the sexy side of drinking on the job – a tumbler of amber liquid held languidly while discussing business deals and strategy – the reality is much more disturbing, experts say.

Employees who are confronted with the pressure to “fit in” at business networking events by drinking, may find they start to reach for alcohol more and more. If they’ve had a pre-disposition in the past to overuse alcohol, they may find added work stress spirals them into alcoholism, says Sarah Allen Benton, author of "Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic" and therapist at The McLean Residence at The Brook transitional living program for substance abuse treatment in Waltham, Mass.

“I think shows like ‘Mad Men’ do factor into the idea of drinking and the workplace. It’s seen as part of a job to socialize and make connections. If you’re in a bar or restaurant, it feels socially acceptable to drink. It can creep up on you,” Benton says. “Some people don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable, so they feel they have to have a drink in hand. But people need to learn not to worry so much about what other people think.”

Addiction specialist Webster says in families, the alcoholic often has someone – or several people – who can be manipulated into allowing the drinking to continue. That same family dynamic is often mirrored in the workplace, she says.

“In order to keep using, the alcoholic will justify it, or minimize it or just deny it,” Webster says.

That means while an employee may be confronted at work about drinking on his or her lunch hour, for example, the employee will either be “incredibly apologetic” or “get angry and shut the other person down,” Webster says.

“The same thing happens in families,” she says.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management estimates that the cost of alcoholism in the workplace is between $33 billion and $68 billion annually. Absenteeism of alcoholics or those with drinking problems is about eight times greater than other workers.

Further, one in five employees report being exposed to dangerous conditions, or injured, because of a colleague’s drinking – or have had to go beyond their regular work duties to cover for a drinking co-worker.

Webster says that when she does a workplace intervention, she is “very, very gentle” with the colleagues of an alcoholic.

“You must be respectful. You ask them what it’s been like for them to be around the person and they start to tell me their stories,” she says. “They may tell me that they kept lying (for the alcoholic) because they didn’t want them to lose their job. But I tell them that if that person is doing a bad job, then other people might lose their jobs as a result. I talk about the unintended consequences of their actions.”

Webster says she also educates colleagues about what it means to be a co-dependent. “Then I hit them with the whammy. I ask them: ‘Who are you to take away this person’s (alcoholic worker’s) life consequences? Because it’s consequences that break down the denial so they can see their problem. That’s the saddest, most dangerous thing – preventing them from experiencing the natural consequences of their actions.”

Just as in a family situation, enablers in the workplace have the best of intentions but end up making the problem worse because they may delay the alcoholic from getting help sooner, Webster says.

For those who want to help a co-worker who may have a drinking problem, both Webster and Benton say human resources should be notified. Most companies have some kind of employee assistance program, and alcoholics have certain protections under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“You’re not being a tattletale,” Webster says. “And, even if they do eventually lose their job, it’s not your fault. Losing a job may be the thing that gets them to get help. You may be saving their life.”

Do you think colleagues hesitate to get involved in a co-worker's drinking problem? Why or why not?



Patricia Robb said...

I wrote an article about this same issue, although not as researched and informative as yours. Mine is just about my experience with someone in my office who had a alchol problem and I also had input from a recovering alcholic that I am acquainted with who was willing to share her thoughts.

I'm sure all of us have had experiences with co-workers who have substance abuse problems, but I think it is correct that we do enable and probably think we are being helpful and are protecting them by making excuses for them or helping them with a timeline or filling in for them when you see they are out of commission.

Coming from a home with an alcholic father, I know that what we think of as helping only makes the problem go in the closet and is never dealt with.

I currently work for a not-for-profit organization in Canada that researches substance abuse issues, so thanks for writing about this.


Anita said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and the link. It's never an easy disease to deal with...