Monday, June 16, 2008

Treating alcoholism as a performance issue

For some reason alcoholism does not draw too much attention, especially at work places
But research shows that alcohol-related issues are as serious as other substance-abuse cases
If organisations were to fire employees for alcohol-related problems, they would probably end up firing one in ten people ! Although the issue still does not receive too much attention, it's surprising that almost 75 percent of moderate to heavy drinkers are employed either full time or part time. That aside, alcohol-related problems cost the business world nearly USD 80 million and 500 million work hours annually. With such alarming figures, it is a surprise why most organisations do little about it.
Addressing the issue?
Firing an employee is a short-term solution as it does not address the behaviour. Ignoring the issue till an individual "minds his own business and does not become a nuisance" is again not a way to deal with it. On the contrary, doing so only perpetuates the offence. However, these are popular ways of dealing with alcoholism at work. Experts now recommend a professional way of dealing with alcoholism at work. They believe that treating it as a job-performance issue can make a better impact. Also, since managers are not trained to deal with alcoholism, it makes sense to categorise it under issues that managers deal with regularly. As one expert rightly says, "Managers cannot identify the problem, even if they are sure, because that would mean they are making a diagnosis, and they are not qualified to do that." Moreover, addressing alcoholism as a performance issue helps avoid litigation.
Under the garb of performance
The only time when managers bother is when their top performers are reported for alcoholism. However, dealing with alcoholism as a performance issue applies to every employee in the organisation regardless of their current performance ratings. Also, just as with other performance issues, alcohol-related problems must be addressed as soon as they occur. As the director of a substance-abuse counselling services agency says, "The worst thing you can do is look away." So now that it is agreed that treating alcohol-related matters as job performance issues is the appropriate way out, what should it constitute?
Managers are advised to use a progressive approach in dealing with performance matters. A similar approach is recommended for addressing alcohol-related issues where one of the first steps involves documenting employees' performance problems. Step two is when the manager schedules a meeting to discuss employees' problematic performance. Ideally, the manager should begin with a couple of informal chats and then move on to scheduling formal discussions. These discussions should include sharing performance observations, a bit of career counselling and if needed sounding the employee on repercussions. If an employee fails to respond upto this stage, the next step in the progressive approach includes taking disciplinary action. "If their performance deteriorates, then whatever human-resources that are in place for discipline or removal from the job should be applied," says Dr. Eric Goplerud, director of a medical centre that runs a programme to treat alcoholism.
An important angle
Besides sharing observations, the initial discussions should include suggestions and resources the individual can employ easily to tackle his problems. In most cases, alcoholism is not related to career or work problems but arises from personal or social issues. Therefore, supporting an employee to address personal issues translating into poor performance is the only permanent way of tackling alcoholism. But offering assistance is one thing; getting employees to take it up is another challenge altogether!
According to experts, what helps is threatening employees with deadlines to improve performance. Ironically, the "better do it or else" approach to disciplining employees has earned flak, but it has a high success rate in addressing alcoholic-related problems. Organisations can also implement Employee Assistance Programmes. These programmes have medical experts and counsellors who are qualified to detect and treat alcohol and substance-abuse cases. Additionally, a few other measures include: asking employees to attend regular seminars on the ill-effects of alcohol and substance abuse, circulating newsletters and case studies and asking managers to talk about it every once in a while.
The feel-good benefit
An employer who invests in diagnosing and treating alcohol- related problems saves huge amounts in health-care costs. According to a survey, "treating employees with alcohol problems yields a 215 percent return on investments in health-care savings for employers." That aside, an employee who puts his act together will enjoy better interpersonal relations, morale and confidence. This has a positive percolating impact on overall employee morale and work place relationships.
Work place violence, substance-abuse and other equally alarming issues are getting addressed aggressively. For some reason, however, alcoholism is treated as a less dangerous vice though evidence suggests otherwise. There has to be some noise about alcoholism, more than what is already being made. Put simply, alcoholism should be treated as a major performance issue, and managers must be made responsible for addressing it.

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