Karie Batzler, behavioral health director at Capital BlueCross, wishes more people would react to a coworker’s drinking problem the way they might to finding a drug needle and syringe on a colleague’s desk.
“Because it’s socially acceptable, and because it’s legal, alcohol abuse may sometimes become banter at work, the subject of casual conversation,” Batzler said. “Instead of it being, ‘Oh my goodness, you might have a chronic condition that could take your life,’ there’s a smoothing-over when it comes to consuming alcohol, and that keeps it from rising to the level of intervention and treatment.”
Employers pay a particularly high price for America’s ongoing alcohol struggle by way of lost productivity and higher healthcare costs. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) cites numerous studies that report alcohol addiction and abuse cost anywhere from $33 billion to $68 billion.
Overdrinking manifests itself in numerous negative ways in the workplace, where absenteeism is roughly four to eight times greater among alcoholics and alcohol abusers, the OPM says, and where alcoholics’ family members also are absent at greater rates. Alcohol abuse also can lead to frequent tardiness; excessive sick leave; missed deadlines; careless, sloppy, or incomplete assignments; missed quotas; and faulty analyses.
It often frays relationships among coworkers, makes “loners” of affected employees, and leads to belligerent and argumentative conduct.
Employers can help by offering education programs for both management and employees. They can further help by referring employees to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that offer alcoholism counseling, and by encouraging peer interventions and urging self-referrals for those who suspect they have a drinking problem.
Capital BlueCross, for example, offers to its small and mid-market employer groups EAPs featuring confidential and comprehensive services for those facing alcohol abuse.
The health insurer also works to educate and increase awareness among its employer groups and their employees. Capital BlueCross’ Health Promotion and Wellness team offers to employer groups an innovative Alcohol Awareness Exhibit. Using vision impairment goggles, the exhibit helps viewers literally see the harmful effects of alcohol abuse.
At capbluecross.com, members can access a multitude of information on alcoholism through the Healthwise® Knowledgebase, where they’ll find videos and questionnaires to help assess whether they need professional treatment.
And through NeuroFlow, a self-directed mental wellness app available to certain group plans, Capital BlueCross offers a survey to reliably identify people who drink to dangerous levels or have active alcohol-use disorders. It provides those who answer the survey positively with tips to help mitigate their drinking.
While proactive measures matter, Capital BlueCross’ Batzler says simple compassion is the most critical first step when helping employees who abuse alcohol.
“Rather than this becoming an intervention to help someone with a substance-use disorder, as it should be, sometimes it becomes a policing,” Batzler said, adding that she’d like to see more extensive training for managers.
“Coach them on how to have those difficult conversations with employees about their possible alcohol problems,” she said. “Provide them the factual information about how alcohol impacts our bodies, but also teach them how to navigate those very difficult conversations, and how to work with the human resources department as a company, as a partner.”