Alcoholics who go unnoticed
There is a difference between alcoholism and functional alcoholism. Many employees are afflicted by the latter. MARISKA MORRIS explains what companies can do to help those struggling in silence
Each year around 2,5-million deaths worldwide are caused by the harmful use of alcohol. It is the third-largest risk factor for disease burden in Africa. The average alcohol consumption per capita on the continent between 2008 and 2010 has been estimated to be 6,2 litres of pure alcohol per annum.
According to statistics published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2014, the average consumption per capita of pure alcohol in South Africa is 8,2 litres per year. This number drastically increases when considering only the drinking population. While a smaller percentage of South Africans drink, those who do often drink more than people in other countries.
The South African drinking population consumes 27 litres of pure alcohol on average per year. Around 25 percent of the drinking population participates in regular heavy episodic drinking.
Ten percent of male drinkers are prone to a disorder with a 4,2-percent prevalence to dependency. Recognising alcoholism is easy when one is faced with a full-blown alcoholic. However, this is not always the case with functional alcoholics.
Director at Alco-Safe, Rhys Evans, notes: “There is a perception that the signs of alcoholism are easily identifiable through certain traits and characteristics. However, there is a stark difference between identifying a ‘full-blown’ alcoholic who displays all of the signs, and a ‘functional’ alcoholic, who may display none of them.”
Functional alcoholics tend to hide in plain sight. They are able to perform all their daily tasks, despite drinking just as much as full-blown alcoholics.
How to identify a functional alcoholic
Functional alcoholics, unlike their full-blown counterparts, mask any smell of alcohol with excessive cologne, breath mints or chewing gum. They often find any excuse to have a public drink and are full of excuses for being late, not completing a task, or being absent from work.
Functional alcoholics will be absent from work frequently as a result of illness as alcohol lowers the immune system. Common complaints include liver problems, stomach illnesses and headaches. They are prone to frequent outbursts, poor memory or total memory loss and are often overly sociable. They have erratic schedules and often find a reason to leave work early or to have a “drinking lunch”.
“Even if organisations suspect a drinking problem, they tend to not address it, as the functional alcoholic seems to have a handle on their work and social life,” Evans points out. However, not addressing the problem could lead to irreparable damage to the company.
While these alcoholics might seem capable of managing their tasks, they are still intoxicated and prone to making mistakes as their senses are dulled and reaction time is affected. In the manufacturing, mining and transport industry, this could lead to costly or even deadly mistakes.
In 2015 the Lysblink Seaways ship grounded in the Ardnamurchan Peninsula near the Scottish village of Kilchoan. The officer managing the bridge had drunk half a litre of rum earlier in the evening and had turned off the warning system that would have alerted him of danger.
The ship had to be scrapped after it ran aground and 25 t of marine gas oil spilled into the ocean. The officer was simply dismissed. Evans also points out that the mistakes aren’t always outrightly costly. It could be a series of small, seemingly inconsequential errors that add up.
How to address alcoholism
According to the Occupation Health and Safety (OHS) Act, companies have a responsibility and a right to do alcohol testing at the workplace. Evans says: “Companies have a responsibility to create a safe environment and allowing an intoxicated employee to work under the influence is wrong.”
He suggests businesses include alcohol testing in their company policy and employee contracts. A company needs to prove that there was some alcohol in the employee’s system before taking action. Evans suggests that a police-grade breathalyser should be used.
“Once an employee has been identified as having alcohol in their system, they are taken to a private room. They are asked not to eat, drink or smoke anything for 15 minutes. Any alcohol from another source, such as cough syrup, will have left the body during this time, while alcohol from an alcoholic beverage would need an hour to leave the blood stream,” Evans adds.
The response to alcohol abuse varies. Some companies will dismiss an employee on their first offence, while others will provide a written warning. The leniency of the company is very dependent on the level of risk.
“High-risk industries like mining are very strict when it comes to alcohol policies. Other industries, especially desk-job positions, are less strict,” Evans says. “Alco-Safe advises its clients to give an employee a written warning and supply them with assistance and possibly some sick leave in order to recover. A lot of alcoholics want help, especially once they have been caught.”
He also points out that companies that support employees who have drinking problems are more likely to retain key skills and prevent relapses.
“Alco-Safe has found that organisations that go above and beyond to assist their employees in overcoming alcoholism tend to have fewer alcohol problems among staff, have a happier and more productive work force, and experience far fewer accidents and errors in their workplace,” Evans concludes.