Battling Addiction: The Workplace Matters

Email this ArticlePrint This Page


  • Work can often contribute to a person's risk of developing alcoholism.
  • Researchers have found that work is often an ideal place to address an alcohol problem when a formal system for help, such as an employee assistance program or a union-based member assistance program, is in place.
  • Peer support can save lives, as shown by the thriving member assistance program of the Steamfitters Union Local 638 in New York City.

In the battle against addiction, the workplace matters.

First, it may increase the risk of developing alcoholism. Second, it can be an important setting for intervention: most people who get help through work for their alcoholism recover and successfully continue in their jobs.

According to folk wisdom, your job can drive you to drink. Drinking has long been regarded as a way of coping with the stresses and strains of work. Job strains and pressures are often associated with the tendency to turn to the bottle. But drinking too much can lead to alcohol abuse and dependence, or alcoholism. And alcohol and drug use can be hazardous -nearly half of all industrial injuries can be linked to substance use.

Researchers have identified four factors in the workplace that can contribute to employee drinking problems:

  • Stress - workplace strains such as heavy workloads and too few resources can induce workers to drink heavily and develop alcohol problems.
  • Alienation - employees drink to cope with feelings of meaninglessness and powerlessness.
  • Social control - employees drink heavily because of the absence of supervisory controls on their drinking.
  • Culture - employees drink heavily to conform to workplace drinking norms.

Studies that consider the stress, alienation, social control and cultural issues find that workplace culture is the strongest predictor of employee drinking problems. That is, employees in heavy drinking environments are more likely than other employees to develop problems with alcohol. In addition, employees are more likely to use alcohol to cope with stress and alienation when they work in a heavy drinking culture. Research also indicates that excessive supervisory control or punishment can contribute to employees' heavy drinking. Instead of curbing heavy drinking, excessive punishment can backfire, leading employees to drink more and encouraging their coworkers to cover up for them. These findings have important implications for workplace intervention.

The Case for Workplace Intervention

Where is it most appropriate to engage in the battle against alcoholism? Schools, the family, the medical community and religious organizations all have a place in the prevention, intervention and the treatment of alcoholism. At the Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies at Cornell University, our extensive examination of these issues convincingly demonstrates that for several reasons, the workplace is uniquely poised to help those with a drinking problem.

1. The workplace offers a framework for counteracting the denial and manipulation that often accompany alcoholism. While people with this illness may be willing to sacrifice their home, friendships and even their family, many are not ready to risk their primary source of income. Employees tend to be, at least in the short term, dependent upon their employer as a source of income. This provides the employer with the opportunity to make certain demands on ill workers, pushing them to acknowledge their drinking problems and seek help.

2. Given that most people spend the majority of their waking hours in the workplace, and given that for most, work is a highly social activity, people with untreated alcoholism may find it more difficult at work than in other settings to disguise or hide their problem. Consequently, while some coworkers and managers may prefer to sweep the problem under the rug, there are often one or two peers or supervisors who have noticed the problematic behavior, and given the appropriate framework, may be willing to take action.

3. Since most workplaces keep relatively careful records of employees' task performance, managers can provide undeniable, documented evidence of the performance-related impact that drinking is having on the individual.

4. Since work is governed by formal, regulated relationships and processes, and actions are often well documented, people who agree to seek alcohol treatment in the context of the workplace can rarely get away with giving only lip service to a treatment plan or with manipulating their way out of what they might view as a "temporary mess."

Without formal systems for harnessing these unique workplace characteristics in the battle against alcoholism, it is unlikely that these advantages will be realized. Such frameworks can be provided by employer-sponsored employee assistance programs (EAPs) and union-supported member assistance programs (MAPs).

Job performance is one indicator that an employee may be having a problem with alcohol and/or other drug use. A supervisor (within the framework of an EAP) or a union peer counselor (in a MAP) may initiate a conversation to encourage the troubled workers to seek help for his or her personal problems. There is never just one discussion, but several, increasing in formality. If there is no change in behavior, supervisors may administer progressive disciplinary action. This method of discussion and the offer of referral for one's problems is known as "constructive confrontation". The idea is to break down the denial of personal problems and encourage employees to accept help by motivating them to change their behavior in a positive way. Managers and supervisors, and in the case of MAPs, peer counselors, work together to make sure that an employee gets the help - such as referral to counseling and recovery services - that he or she needs.

EAPs and MAPs grew out of the need to help employees with alcohol and other drug use and addiction. Helping the employee who has problems with alcohol and/or drug addiction to seek counseling and encouraging and supporting them during the recovery process remains a primary focus of most. Studies find that 70-80% of people with alcoholism referred to treatment with the support of their employers and/or union are on the job leading productive, sober lives a year after referral.

Employee Assistance is Cost Effective

Still, employers often ask if workplace intervention is worth it. In fact, EAPs spring from the understanding that by helping employees better manage their personal problems, employers will be able to enhance employee productivity.

Federal data estimate that in 2002 (the most recent year for which data are available), alcohol and drug use cost U.S. employers $128.6 billion in lost productivity and an additional $15.8 billion in substance use-related employee health care costs, typically covered by employer-paid insurance premiums. Much of the lost productivity stems from an increased rate of absenteeism and tardiness among workers with substance use problems. Indeed, alcoholism alone causes 500 million lost workdays annually.

One major automaker reports that substance-using employees average 40 days of sick leave annually versus five days for non-using employees. According to the results of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (1999) , drug-using employees are 2.2 times more likely to request early dismissal time off, 2.5 times more likely to have absences of eight days or more a month and three times more likely to be late for work.

Alcohol and other drug problems also take their toll on productivity in the form of industrial accidents and fatalities. Up to 40 percent of industrial fatalities and 47 percent of all industrial injuries are attributed to alcohol use and alcoholism. The same survey noted earlier also reported that drug-using employees are 3.6 times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident and five times more likely to file a workers' compensation claim.

All of these side effects from employee substance use add up to enormous costs. But EAPs and MAPs are major cost-savers. One study has show that a successful on-site EAP or MAP can cost as little as $30.00 per employee per year.

Peer Intervention Key to Member Assistance Programs

Most successful MAPs are comprised of teams of volunteer peer counselors who work with local work units. While employers originated EAPs largely as a means of increasing productivity, MAP proponents simply believe that peers are often the best-positioned individuals to provide assistance to one another, and have much to gain by doing so. By focusing on the local level, and having the teams operate autonomously, unions are able to reach employees where they are. This is one way that peer counselors gain trust of union members and ensure that all workers refer troubled colleagues to the MAP. These volunteer peer counselors undergo training and in some cases are certified.

The New York City-based Steamfitters Union Local 638 runs a valuable MAP that helps many of its members address their alcohol problems against the backdrop of a deep-seated workplace drinking culture. Its MAP peer counselors promote drug-free workplaces by reminding people that the use of alcohol or other drugs on the job is a violation of union and occupational regulations. They let people know that off-the job use of alcohol and other drugs that ultimately impair job function is unacceptable. For instance, if a worker violates the drug- and alcohol-related norms, a peer counselor reinforces what is acceptable behavior and urges the worker to comply voluntarily - with the understanding that if there is no compliance, the supervisor may be forced to take disciplinary action. If a worker is unable to comply to the standard voluntarily, then the MAP peer counselor may offer a referral for treatment.

MAPs strive to create working environments in which union members address their own alcohol and drug use issues. In this best of all worlds, workers take it for granted that drinking and using drugs at work is unacceptable and those workers who suffer from substance use problems will receive treatment and support on the journey toward recovery. No sign that management pins up can take the place of an active, committed MAP.

In short, the workplace matters, and in the case of helping employees beat addiction, it appears to matter a lot. For more information on the importance of the workplace in the battle against addiction, visit the website of Cornell University's Smithers Institute at