Addictions lead to performance decline

Alcohol abuse has existed in the workplace since the industrial revolution, so supervisors must be properly trained in intervention perks to help staff to beat their demons and work effectively, says Tony Buon, lecturer at Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University.

Following the industrial revolution, the abrupt transition to organised factory labour led to alcoholism on a vast scale among the newly-conscripted working classes. The extent to which alcohol became a refuge from the misery of inhumane working conditions was depicted in the common saying of the time: "The shortest way out of Manchester is to get drunk".

The first work-based alcohol programmes were established in the United States during the 1940s. These early schemes tried to teach supervisors how to spot workers who appeared to be drunk. They taught supervisors to approach employees with shaky hands, bleary eyes or red noses, or those who were chewing lots of breath mints because these were seen as sure symptoms of alcoholism. However, most supervisors were extremely uncomfortable about becoming the company "drunk spotters". So it is not surprising that these early forms of drug testing were unsuccessful.

The stigma of alcohol problems and the complexity of the associated issues could not be dealt with by such simplistic measures. Some important principles, however, did come out of these unsuccessful, early attempts at workplace programmes. These included the view that, essentially, if a problem such as addiction is related to a person’s private life and it is not affecting their work performance, then it is not the business of their employer.

Employees’ addiction problems, however, will have an impact on their work performance in some way. Normally, this performance decline will be significant and sustained.

This means that if supervisors are concerned about one of their staff, they must keep the focus of their concern on that employee’s work performance.

The focus on alcohol ignores the fact that the problem is often not the drug itself. Drug taking, including excessive alcohol consumption, is in most cases, only a symptom of other personal or work-related problems.

Over the last seventy years, various approaches to employee alcohol, and other drug use, have been attempted. From education programmes to drug testing, one principle has remained consistent: the best approach to helping staff is the intervention of a supervisor or manager [who will] not [raise issues] about the employee’s drinking, gambling or drug addiction, but [will] with their work performance.

The appropriate management response to a decline in performance is to address the underlying cause of the problem. If the cause is a work-related factor such as poor training, then the solution lies within the domain of the supervisor. However, if the cause is a set of complex and private personal problems, most suggest that some form of employee assistance programme (EAP) may be the most appropriate strategy.

Of course, employees should be able to refer themselves to the EAP, but when it comes to addiction this is very unlikely, as denial is part of the process. But it is very hard to deny the reality of a disciplinary interview from a supervisor about deteriorating work performance. Here, an addicted employee is confronted about their deteriorating performance and then given an escape valve in the form of an EAP.

This type of EAP supervisor referral has been shown to be the most effective way of assisting employees with alcohol or other drug or addiction problems. It allows appropriate assessment and treatment to be carried out without the ethical baggage of drug testing or the expense of residential treatment programmes. Unfortunately, not all EAPs emphasise the supervisor referral component of the product. This is unfortunate as almost all of the cost-benefit studies done on EAPs have shown this to have the most significant impact on the bottom line. If an EAP does not train supervisors to use appropriate work performance referral, and if employers rely on self-referral for employees to access an EAP, then they are offering an inferior staff benefit.