Supporting colleagues with drink problems

28 Mar

How do you respond when a colleague you respect is drinking at levels which affect their work? How do you address this if you are their manager? The awkward realisation that ‘something must be done’ when drinking affects work has challenged the most competent of managers and put many co-workers in difficult situations.

The truth is around a fifth of adults in the UK drink at levels that could harm their health and for some this may spill over into the workplace. Not all workplaces breath test their staff so the majority rely either on staff to come forward, or on colleagues or managers to address the problem. Thankfully, we can learn a lot from what we know works in health settings, using the FRAMES approach (Miller and Sanchez 1993).

The best approach is a collaborative rather than confrontational one – this is more difficult if you are a manager and you are concerned about one of your staff , but if this is the first time you’re talking about your concerns, you can attempt to keep the discussion informal if possible.

Share your concerns as objectively as possible – what are the risks for the individual if their drinking is affecting their work? What could happen to them if their drinking continuously affected their performance – are their any safety concerns with their job? Be pragmatic about risks for their job security – how would this be judged in light of the company alcohol policy?

It is important to stress that you are on your colleague’s side – you may be concerned about their drinking behaviour and how this impacts on their work, but state that you are primarily concerned about their welfare. It’s also their responsibility to decide what to do, not yours.

If you’re aware of any support mechanisms your organisation has for staff concerned about their drinking, make sure your colleague has access to this information, or help them find out. Some companies have excellent occupational health teams who will advise staff in complete confidence. Many organisations have policies that protect staff who come forward with a problem, as opposed to discovering a problem once its clearly affecting their performance.

There are also a number of self-help resources online, especially on the NHS Livewell website or Down Your Drink, a self-help tool from University College London.

Ultimately, you need to alert your colleague to the continued risk to their livelihood and potentially other’s safety if their drinking behaviour is not addressed. They can certainly change if they decide to although they may need to get support online or face to face to do so.

If you are a manager, there is excellent e-training available on how to use this approach from the Department of Health. Similarly, if you need guidance on developing an alcohol policy, the Health and Safety Executive have their own useful guide.

In summary (and in short!), honesty is always the best policy.

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