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Alcoholism and the work place.

Alcoholism is, unfortunately, a common problem among Americans. It has been estimated that approximately 12 million people in the United States suffer from alcohol dependence. This disorder carries considerable social consequences. Approximately 50 percent of motor vehicle accidents and 60 percent of murders are alcohol related. Life expectancy is typically reduced by 10 to 20 years for an alcoholic. Marital problems, spouse and child abuse, and family discord are frequently associated with a drinking problem.

Alcohol abuse also wreaks havoc with business and industry. It has been estimated that during the 1980s, alcoholism cost U.S. businesses approximately $24 billion to $30 billion annually in lost work time and reduced productivity. Absenteeism is 16 times higher among substance abusers than other employees and accident risks for alcohol abusers are 400 percent greater than for nonabusing employees.

Alcohol is known to diminish job effectiveness. It has been demonstrated that memory, problem-solving skills, and conceptual thinking are impaired by alcohol use. Clearly effectiveness and success are diminished when promotional agendas are neglected, appointments missed, or an employee generally appears forgetful.

Trouble in sustaining one's concentration is also a typical consequence of heavy drinking. A property manager who cannot focus long enough to set a reasonable list of daily priorities or a leasing representative who cannot remember the details of a contract will erode tenant and owner confidence.

In addition to appearing distracted, a manager with a drinking problem may be much less effective at solving problems. Logic, orderly thinking, and creativity suffer after drinking. Particularly devastating after years of alcohol abuse is a diminished ability to think abstractly or to grasp the "big picture."

A vice president of marketing or a CEO who cannot chart a long-term strategy for a company is clearly not an effective leader. A senior-level executive who operates at such a diminished level of effectiveness may find it impossible to direct subordinates or to maintain the respect of others.

Alcoholism is a significant economic liability at all levels of an organization. Impaired workers, mid-level managers, and CEOs can undermine a company's productivity and growth. It may not be coincidental that Japan has proven itself to be an economic dynamo and, relative to other industrialized nations, has a low incidence of substance abuse.

Although alcoholism can be grim, collaboration between industry, employee assistance programs, government, insurers, and health care profesionals has shown that it is a very treatable problem with a good prognosis. First, however, the problem must be recognized.

Recognizing alcoholism

What are the earlier stages of this disorder? Steady deterioration in an employee's previously acceptable work performance may be a cause for concern. For instance, how has the employee's work attendance changed? How many Fridays and Mondays have been used as sick days? (Over time, an alcoholic's weekends may begin on Thursday and end on Tuesday.)

Are there noticeable changes in behavior during the day, such as outbursts of anger, lapses in attention, or off color" remarks (perhaps after an extended lunch hour)? Have deadlines, quotas, or important details been chronically neglected?

Such behavior may be caused by a variety of factors, and it is advisable to ask an employee to explain this deterioration in work performance rather than to assume hastily that alcoholism is the cause.

However, managers and executives must constantly be aware of two major symptoms when confronting alcoholism. The first is denial. Alcoholic denial is apparent in every stage of the alcoholic's drinking career." The impaired worker instantly refutes evidence that he or she may have a drinking problem.

Continue the confrontation, and the second major symptom of alcoholism, rationalization, will be evident. The alcoholic will state that rather than having a drinking problem, he or she has a husband/wife problem, son/daughter problem, supervisor/job problem, and so forth.

At such times, it may be helpful to have the services of an employee assistance program (EAP). EAPs serve as consultants to management and intervene when a supervisor has been unable to get an employee to seek help. The assistance and consultation of knowledgeable professionals is often sufficient to assess and diagnose a problem and then to help an employee secure the treatment needed.

Bringing alcoholism under control

Is the treatment of alcoholism cost effective? Treatment effectiveness can be evaluated in a variety of ways, including number of days sober, decreased frequency of family problems, improved work performance, reduced motor vehicle accidents, or improved physical health. Consequently, assessment of treatment effectiveness can be a complicated process. Nevertheless, there are numerous studies which support the premise that alcoholism treatment pays off.

In 1979 the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration conducted a study which suggested that alcoholism treatment contributed to a median decrease of 40 percent in employee accident claims and in sick leave. In 1982 the Group Health Association of America commissioned a study which demonstrated reduced absenteeism (approximately 50 percent) and reduced utilization of other health care services (between 11 percent and 30 percent) after alcoholism treatment.

Clearly, treatment helps. Individual employees and the organizations they work for benefit when a drinking problem is identified, confronted, and treated. Treatment is a far more constructive approach then pretending a problem does not exist.

An untreated alcohol problem may lend to chronic terminations and repeated hiring and retraining of employees. A company's morale and productivity may also slowly, but steadily, erode due to untreated alcoholism.

Employee assistance programs, management consultant firms, or directories of treatment providers such as the National Register of Health Care Providers in Psychology will provide managers with information on appropriate treatment alternatives.
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Author:Clifford, J. Stephen; Soares, Gregory L.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:May 1, 1990
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