Motivating alcoholic workers to seek help.
Exxon Corp.'s decision, in the wake of the Alaskan oil spill, to prevent workers from returning to certain operating positions after treatment for alcohol and drug abuse caused a furor among union leaders and labor relations officials. Whatever the outcome of that particular dispute, it is apparent that companies are beginning to look for concrete methods for coming to terms with the devastating effects of alcohol and drug abuse on workplace performance.
The statistics are daunting. Business and industry lose an estimated $20.6 billion annually to alcoholism, according to The Conference Board, a New York-based research organization. In this country alone there are more than 10.5 million alcoholics, according to the National Council for Alcoholism. All told, the number of people age 18 and over who suffer from the negative effects of alcoholism total 17.7 million.
Not only do alcoholics' problems affect their performance on the job but also their behavior tends to profoundly affect the employees in contact with them. The magnitude of the problems surrounding drug and alcohol abuse dictates that no employer can afford to ignore the problems or wait for them to go away.
In confronting the problem, it is important that employers realize alcoholism is a disease, and as such, follows a relatively predictable course. Because of this, managers can take specific actions to deal with chemical dependency at particular stages of its progression.
The first of these actions is to eliminate any false assumptions about alcoholism. As a disease, alcoholism has a specific symptomatology. Drinking behavior is inappropriate, unpredictable, excessive, and constant. Tip-offs of a potential abuse problem in employees may include making a regular six-pack stop on the way home each night, knowing the bartenders by first name in every bar between the office and home, or enjoying a daily, five-martini luch with a few nightcaps to round off the day.
Normal social drinking then grows out of control. Alcoholics lose control of choosing how much to drink after they start, and as the disease progresses, they are no longer able to choose wether or not to begin drinking in the first place.
Other problems in an employee's life may stem from this drinking behavior, but the disease of alcoholism is the primary one. Before marital counseling can help a shaky relationship, before job training can prop up a faltering career, and before financial management services can divert a bankcruptcy, the root cause of these problems - alcoholism - must first be addressed.
Alcoholism is a permanent condition as well as a chronic one. The disease can be arrested, but the alcoholic who quits drinking is still an alcoholic; there is no permanent cure. Any consumption of alcohol has the almost inevitable potential to cause a relapse and a reinstitution of the active phase of the disease.
Finally, alcoholism is fatal. If left untreated, the alcoholic will eventually die of the disease's effects. Death may occur from internal damage to the liver and other vital organs; from an accident while drunk; or from suicide over despair at the loss of family, job, and friends.
Telling Memory Loss
Like many diseases, alcoholism is treatable. But before treatment can begin, the problem must be recognized. Often the employer is the first to identify an alcoholic's problem because the family often has a personal stake in covering up the alcoholic's misbehavior. It is important, therefore, for managers to be aware of the symptoms of advanced alcoholism. These symptoms often include memory problems that may directly affect an alcoholic's work.
The most well-known and least understood symptom of alcoholism related to memory impairment is the blackout, a type of chemically induced amnesia. Blackouts are commonly confused with passing out, but during blackouts alcoholics appear to be functioning normally. They simply cannot remember what was said or done during that time span when they come out of the blackout hours, days, or even weeks later.
An alcoholic tends to accept these periods as a normal part of life, but an employer will find the symptom difficult, if not impossible, to tolerate. An alcoholic may honestly not remember he or she promised to finish a report by Monday if the promise was made during a blackout. This chemical amnesia extends to virtually everything said and done during the time of the blackout and is very frustrating for most managers to deal with.
Repression, which is psychologically induced memory loss, is another common symptom of alcoholic behavior. Uncomfortable memories - incidents such as calling the CEO incompetent or telling clients their products are shoddy - are repressed totally so the alcoholic does not have to deal with the embarrassment or consequences of such words and actions.
The third type of memory impairment common in the advanced stages of alcoholism is euphoric recall, which usually evolves into a full-scale delusional system. When operating under this system, alcoholics remember how they felt instead of how they behaved. For example, alcoholics often think they are witty and brilliant at parties, tossing off one-liners. However, reports from sober observers describe a staggering walk, slurred speech, and inappropriate behavior.
These three mechanisms literally destroy the ability to remember accurately. Pointing out faulty memories is important to keep the alcoholic employee in touch with reality. Managers who make apologies and excuses for the alcoholic employee, on the other hand, merely help hide the disease.
Alcoholics do not need an employer to excuse their drunkenness because they were under so much pressure to increase production; alcoholics are experienced at creating their own rationalizations. Such denial is a core component of alcoholism and can be the most fatal aspect of the disease. Alcoholism, if it is never faced by abusers themselves, can never be treated.
Denial is a multifaceted approach alcoholics use to avoid facing the problems their substance abuse is causing. When confronted about inappropriate use of alcohol, such as coming to work smelling of beer, the alcoholic may simply insist alcohol is not a problem.
Minimizing or making alcohol use seem less serious than it is also popular. When asked about those nightly stops at a tavern, the alcoholic insists it is only an occasional stop for a drink or two rather than admit it is for a nightly 10 or 12 margaritas.
Blaming, which is not denying the behavior but denying the responsibility for it, is also a frequently used tactic: "The cop stopped me for an expired license plate. If my wife had gotten that taken care of the way I told her to, I would have never been charged with driving while intoxicated. It's all her fault." Rationalizing by offering alibis and excuses for behavior is also popular: "I ride home with Bob, and he likes to stop for a drink so I don't say anything. I just go in with him to be sociable."
Alcoholics are also expert at changing the subject to avoid the topic of alcohol use. If alcohol use is slated for discussion at a staff meeting, managers should not let the discussion be side-tracked no matter how important other topics may seem.
Hostility when reference is made to alcohol use is an intimidation device some individuals like to use to control others. This is especially effective if the alcoholic is physically intimidating as well.
Alcoholics will choose these methods to avoid confrontation because they work. These types of denial are automatic for alcoholics; they protect their addiction.
Motivation Through Intervention
How an employer deals with this denial is often a major factor in motivating an alcoholic to seek help. Typically, alcoholics invest more of their self-worth in their work than in themselves or their families and will ignore family members' pleas that they seek help.
Although the ultimate threat to an alcoholic is often the loss of a job, an employer does not need to wait until the alcoholic is about to be fired before providing assistance. Managers can take action through intervention, a structured communication process designed to awaken the alcoholic to the reality of his or her situation. Here are four phases of preparation that lead up to the actual intervention.
* Finding participants. An intervention requires the participation of two or more people who have a meaningful relationship with the alcoholic but are not chemically dependent themselves. Participants may include not only the employer or supervisor but also co-workers. If the family is willing to be involved, the alcoholic's spouse, children, and parents are excellent team members. Other individuals who may be appropriate to include are the alcoholic's clergy and close friends or neighbors.
* Gathering information. In the next step, participants provide examples of the alcoholic's inappropriate behavior. Each team member makes a list of alcohol-related incidents that he or she has witnessed. These need to be very specific. An example such as "we lost the $50,000 Turner account because you got drunk at the closure meeting and ..." would be effective.
Generally, by the time an intervention is called, there are numerous such incidents along with less dramatic examples of poor performance such as "You've been late seven times in the last month and called in sick 20 times during the last year." All instances of substandard performance are included during the intervention.
* Identifying treatment options. A variety of both outpatient and inpatient treatment centers are normally available locally. Also, increasing numbers of health insurance companies cover such treatment costs - it pays to check ahead of time on your own health insurance company's policies.
The alcoholic may otherwise cost, sometimes legitimately, as an excuse to avoid an inpatient treatment center (most rehabilitation centers charge several thousand dollars). However, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is both worldwide and free. It often presents an excellent low-risk option for treatment.
* Rehearsing. Once you have gathered background information and treatment options, the team is ready to rehearse the intervention. First, designate a chairperson. This may be an outside counselor or the most objective member of the team. The chairperson's task is to ensure that during the intervention, when everyone is giving feedback to the alcoholic, the meeting remains a feedback session and does not devolve into an argument between the team members and the alcoholic.
To practice, sit down together, as you will during the actual intervention, and go over each item on everybody's list. Next, determine the order in which the members will speak. This should be flexible, however, since the alcoholic is likely to become defensive and verbally attack the person reading from his or her list of incidents. If verbal attacks occur, the next person should begin citing examples and continue until finished or verbally attacked. This round-robin continues until all have read their lists.
The intervention itself is often an uncomfortable experience. It is hard to sit down and confront people about what they are doing wrong, but alcoholics will not seek help if they do not hurt. They often need a face-to-face confrontation on how alcohol has affected their work and their lives before they will pay attention to what is happening to them. Alcoholics have often been top performers in the workplace, but if they have deteriorated to where they are not even meeting minimum standards, an ultimatum may save their lives.
Once the alcoholic agrees to accept help, make it available immediately - whether it be the time of the next AA meeting or an alcohol rehabilitation center bed date of that afternoon. If the alcoholic refuses to accept help despite the intervention, keep trying. An ultimatum such as "if you don't bring your work back up to these specific standards in one month, you either agree to go to a treatment center or you're fired" can be effective.
The employer can often be the voice of reality. As long as alcoholics believe they can drink, they will. While only a small percentage of alcoholics are skid row bums, most of the remaining alcoholics are in the work force.
It is up to managers to monitor individual job performance and ensure that deteriorated job performance is brought back up to acceptable standards. This means confronting the fact of substandard performance and assisting the individual in changing whatever is causing the poor performance to occur. When approached in a no-nonsense manner (get help or get out) only one in 100 alcoholics refuses help.
The unwritten policy in many companies condones alcoholic behavior. Supervisors often feel they must cover for their alcoholic employees. But they are in a powerful position to motivate alcoholics to seek help. By doing so they can be instrumental in saving alcoholics' careers and their lives.
Delores A. Rumpel is a certified substance abuse counselor for the United States Air Force with three years' experience as the base drug and alcohol abuse control officer for a population of 3,400 military members.
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|Author:||Rumpel, Delores A.|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1989|
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