Workplace Wellbeing

The Invisible Struggle: How to Support Employees with Alcohol Use Problems

Substance use disorder support and treatment for the entire family is a growing need for employees. Here's how workplaces can provide that support.

Written by
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Kim McConnell
Director of Clinical Programs
Clinically reviewed by
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A depressed woman with substance use disorder sitting on a windowsill

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    Harmful alcohol use is common

    Unhealthy alcohol use impacts the lives of many, and is often hidden by shame and stigma. The workplace is certainly not exempt from this reality.

    Across industries, employees grapple with alcohol-related challenges, either personally or within their families. When a loved one struggles, the impact can seep into the employee’s daily life, creating a burden that doesn’t disappear when they enter the office.

    It’s crucial to recognize the significant role family plays in employees’ lives, and provide effective substance use disorder (SUD) support for employees and their families. Let’s dig deeper into this pressing need in the workplace. 

    Prevalence of alcohol use disorder (AUD)

    According to the most recent National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism survey:

    • 29.5 million people over the age of 12 had an AUD in the past year
    • 60 million people reported binge drinking in the past month
    • 16.3 million people reported heavy alcohol use in the past month

    The number of people who suffer because of harmful alcohol use is staggering:

    • Over 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use every year in the U.S.
    • Harmful alcohol use is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions
    • Globally, 3 million deaths every year are attributed to harmful alcohol use
    • Overall, 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol, as measured in disability-adjusted life years

    These statistics represent immense human suffering. Given the high prevalence, it’s evident that many workplaces harbor employees grappling with alcohol-related challenges. In fact, 66% of employees report using alcohol during work hours.

    Signs that an employee needs help

    As a leader or supervisor, it’s important to recognize that you don’t need to assume the role of clinician if you suspect an employee is dealing with alcohol or drug issues. Instead, pay attention to ongoing shifts in behavior, such as:

    • Changes in productivity
    • Regular tardiness
    • Decreased quality of work
    • Increased conflicts with coworkers
    • Disengagement

    If you observe ongoing behavioral changes, your role is to initiate a compassionate and non-judgmental conversation with the employee. Offer them resources and support while collaboratively finding solutions to address their behavior.

    Approach the situation by expressing your concerns about the observed changes or specific behaviors, inquire if something is affecting them, and work together to understand and resolve the problem.

    Start the conversation

    Initiating an open conversation is key. You can start by saying, “I’ve noticed some changes in your behavior, such as [specific observations like regular tardiness or decreased productivity]. I’m here to support you. Can you tell me what might be causing these changes?” Being specific allows the employee to address their challenges without making you their clinician.

    If the employee does confide in you about their struggles with alcohol, substances, or a loved one’s situation, offer guidance. You can say, “I appreciate you sharing this with me. Can I connect you with some resources or support?”

    This may be a SUD treatment program that’s part of the workplace EAP. If nothing specific is disclosed, but the employee needs support, you can suggest therapy or coaching services. 

    Approaching these conversations with genuine concern, empathy, and care is crucial. It creates a supportive environment where employees feel safe discussing their challenges, enabling them to access the help they need.

    When a family member struggles with alcohol use

    Supporting an employee who has a loved one battling alcohol use is incredibly challenging. Initiating conversations with their loved one and finding appropriate services add difficulty to an already stressful situation.

    In the workplace, you might observe the employee grappling with the emotional toll of their loved one’s struggles. They might appear disengaged, preoccupied with practical concerns like the financial burden of seeking support and dealing with the associated shame and stigma of harmful alcohol use. Understanding these complex situations is vital for offering compassionate and meaningful support. 

    Shame and stigma are still primary barriers to care

    The most significant barrier preventing people from seeking care for an SUD is not the availability of services. It’s the stigma surrounding it.

    Consider how many employees silently navigate the challenges of supporting a spouse, teenager, or sibling while maintaining their work performance. They often feel compelled to handle it in secret, fearing the shame they could experience if their manager or coworker discovers their situation. This sense of secrecy can be incredibly isolating.  

    To create a healthier work environment, fostering acceptance and open dialogue is crucial. We need to establish a culture where employees feel safe discussing their struggles with substance use or their loved ones—knowing they’ll receive empathy, support, and access to resources.

    My own experience with stigma

    Last year, someone in my family faced a deeply challenging situation when a loved one battled severe depression. The emotional toll was immense, leaving her utterly drained. She wasn’t sleeping and felt constant worry and stress about keeping that loved one safe.

    She undertook the difficult task of finding appropriate treatment and ensuring their safety until they could enter care. Remarkably, she managed all of this while juggling a demanding full-time job.  

    I’ll never forget our conversation, especially when she told me she couldn’t she take time off work to support her loved one. She didn’t feel like she could tell her employer about this situation because of the shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues.

    This situation highlighted a striking disparity. An employee caring for a family member with cancer wouldn’t hesitate to tell their employer if they needed time off. It’s disheartening and counterproductive to categorize certain illnesses as deserving of understanding and care while others are unfairly labeled as moral or personal failures. 

    It’s not helpful to treat some illnesses as worthy of care while others are treated as moral or personal failures. These distinctions serve no one, perpetuating stigma and hindering the support individuals and their families need during difficult times. 

    How leaders can support employees who are struggling

    In fostering a healthier workplace culture, it’s important to recognize that SUD and mental health issues are already intertwined with many employees’ lives. Acknowledging this reality within the workplace can significantly enhance employee presence and engagement. 

    To shift the workplace mentality, we can take several proactive steps:

    • Create a supportive culture. Cultivate an environment that reduces stigma around SUD and mental health issues. Encourage open dialogue and understanding.
    • Promote time off. Allow and encourage employees to take time off when they or their families struggle. Acknowledging these challenges and providing space for recovery is vital.
    • Share resources. Regularly circulate information about available resources, demonstrating the organization’s commitment to support employees through these challenges.
    • Encourage open conversation. Initiate discussions about SUD issues at least annually, acknowledging their prevalence. Highlight that team members might deal with these challenges directly or through someone close to them.

    Imagine being that overwhelmed employee, barely holding it together, and hearing a leader or manager openly acknowledge these struggles and offering genuine help. It transforms the workplace into a haven of understanding and support, enabling employees to seek assistance without fear or shame. 

    A dedicated substance use disorder program

    In our Substance Use Disorder (SUD) program, designed for employees, Spring Health offers comprehensive and confidential support tailored to individual needs. It includes:

    • Proactive outreach: When employees seek help with substance-related challenges, our licensed clinicians initiate contact. Employees don’t need to pinpoint the type of assistance required. They acknowledge a substance-related issue they want to address.
    • Confidentiality: Our evidence-based SUD program is entirely confidential. Employees can seek support without their employers being aware of their participation.
    • Dedicated support: Each member is assigned a licensed, master’s-level Care Navigator who guides them through the process, ensuring personalized assistance.
    • Customized care: We provide a range of care options adapted to individuals’ lifestyles and budgets, catering to dependents (18+) and spouses.
    • Smooth referral process: Our program includes a seamless referral process, facilitating quick access to support services.
    • Clear action plan: Members receive a clear action plan outlining their next steps. Appointments are scheduled immediately after discussions with their Care Navigator.
    • Specialized providers: We connect members with providers specializing in SUD treatment. Additionally, access to external programs, including residential care, is available.
    • Progress monitoring: Care Navigators monitor progress closely. If a specific treatment proves ineffective, adjustments can be made promptly, ensuring individuals receive the most beneficial support.     

    At Spring Health, we prioritize providing care that meets the evolving needs of individuals on their journey toward recovery.

    Confronting alcohol use stigma to create change

    Harmful alcohol use affects countless individuals. To address this issue and assist the millions of people who struggle with it, fostering a workplace culture marked by reduced stigma is imperative. It’s important to create an environment where people feel safe to seek support for themselves and their loved ones.

    For HR and other people leaders, make a point to tell employees about SUD services and resources in general communications. Dedicate a day each year to openly discuss substance use in the workplace. Encourage everyone to take time off when they need it, to confront substance use challenges—for themselves or a loved one.

    This is an area where workplace leaders can genuinely transform lives. By nurturing understanding, providing resources, and offering support, workplaces can become sanctuaries where individuals find the strength to address their struggles and embark on paths toward healing and recovery. 

    Learn more about comprehensive support for alcohol and drug use that matches individuals with the right-sized care to meet their exact needs.

    About the Author
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    Kim McConnell
    Director of Clinical Programs

    Dr. McConnell is a licensed psychologist in Colorado who has worked in the area of substance use disorders since 2007. She has experience as a direct care provider in a medical trauma center in a large urban hospital, an outpatient mental health clinic, and community mental health centers. She has also served as an administrator in a county probation department and state medicaid program. Dr. McConnell currently serves as the Director of Clinical Programs at Spring Health.

    About the clinical reviewer
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