Alcoholism and the Workplace: Handling an Alcoholic Employee

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited:  December 16 ,
| 4 Sources

Alcoholism and the workplace is a serious problem. You might not realize it, but alcohol in the workplace is not uncommon. It is estimated that alcohol contributes to 20 – 25% of all workplace accidents.

One in five employees have reported injuries or exposure to dangerous conditions due to a coworkers drinking. More than 10% of adults who are employed fulltime have a substance abuse disorder.

Alcoholism at work is an issue that must be dealt with.

How Can You Recognize an Employee Who Has a Problem With Alcohol in the Workplace?

Signs that an employee has a drinking problem include:

  • Physical - smelling of alcohol, chills, sweating, nausea, and weight loss.
  • Behavioral - limited attention span, impaired coordination, slow reaction time, inability to sit still, irritability, lack of energy, poor motivation, excessive talking, and slowed or slurred speech.
  • Emotional - denial, depression, anxiety, aggression, burnout, and paranoia.

In addition to the above signs, an employee with an alcohol problem will usually have multiple unexplained absences. In fact, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the cost of alcoholism due to absenteeism ranges from $33 billion to $68 billion a year.

Often a family member will call in to report that the employee will not be coming to work - the employee may be too “hung-over” to make the call in the morning.

Employees with alcohol problems will probably also make mistakes in their job. Some of these mistakes may just be sloppy work, but some may be of a serious nature and may endanger others.


What Can You Do About an Employee Who Has a Problem With Alcoholism and the Workplace?

Many companies have policies in place to deal with alcoholism and the workplace. These policies may include drug and alcohol testing any time there is a workplace accident or injury, educational programs for employees about the dangers of alcohol in the workplace, and training for supervisors on how to recognize employees under the influence or employees with drinking problems.

Some companies have “zero tolerance” policies about alcoholism and the workplace, meaning that an employee who comes to work under the influence is automatically fired. Other companies have policies designed to provide assistance to employees to try to help them deal with their drinking problem and maintain their jobs.

Employee assistance programs may consist of counseling and/or referrals to other agencies for services. Employees may be required to seek treatment in order to maintain their jobs.

The benefit to companies of providing employee assistance programs to employees with drinking problems is that they can retain otherwise good workers. They don’t have the expense of hiring and retraining new employees. And it is a compassionate approach to an employee who has an illness - and that’s what alcoholism is, a disease. Treatment is needed, just like for any other disease.

At the same time, an employee cannot be permitted to endanger others with alcohol in the workplace. That’s why an employee might be given time off until they are safely able to return to work. Drug and alcohol tests may be required before and after an employee is permitted to return to the job.

Possible Outcomes

For some employees, treatment may be successful. But for others, it is not so easy to shake the alcoholism habit. The company has done what they could by providing counseling and perhaps treatment, but once an alcoholic always an alcoholic? And being exposed to alcohol every day in the workplace only makes them want a drink more often.

The situation with the employee cannot go on indefinitely - there must be limits set by the employer or else there is liability involved for allowing an unsafe work environment (under which an alcoholic floor supervisor would certainly fall).

Employees who are unable to give up their drinking problem must eventually leave their jobs with that particular company. It will most likely mean termination of employment because the safety of other employees is at stake.

Bottom Line:

In summary, it is not possible for an employer to allow having a drinking problem in the workplace. In addition, this behavior will affect the good faith of other employees and can jeopardize their safety on the job.

Company policy must be made clear from the start - if you have a drinking problem that shows up at work you will be fired. No exceptions. The work environment must be free of any alcoholic behavior, including drinking on the premises or before coming to work drunk.

Employees who are not under the influence but are struggling with alcoholism should take steps to address their illness. They can reach out to a dedicated treatment provider who can guide you through the alcoholism treatments and programs that can help on an alcoholic's journey to sobriety.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 

I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LPC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More

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