COPE CopeLine Supervisor

December 2015

A newsletter for supervisors and line managers

Substance Abuse: When You Want to Help....Don't

There is an oft-cited statistic that an alcoholic's drinking causes problems for a least ten other persons. We think of these other persons as being immediate family and close friends. But an alcoholic takes his or her drinking-related problems to work every day and as a result, supervisors, managers, and co-workers are affected by this illness as well.

Many supervisors and managers, who are responsible for overseeing the alcoholic employee's job performance, find it difficult to identify the pattern of inappropriate behavior that signal a drinking problem. Harder still is dealing with the feeling of helplessness once alcoholism is clearly recognized. Concerned managers and others often discover, too late, that they have unintentionally cooperated in the disease process. They too have become caught up in the denial and confusion that characterizes alcoholism and have taken a ride on the emotional roller coaster of trying to help the alcoholic person.

As with any disease, an alcoholic develops symptoms. These symptoms are both behavioral and physical. Early on, it is more the behavior of the alcoholic that signals the presence of the disease rather than any obvious physical symptoms. The alcoholic's performance and conduct deteriorate gradually. The last thing an alcoholic wants is to lose his or her job. Supervisors and managers may face extremes in behavior: temper tantrums or sullen withdrawal, constant blaming of other people or super nice guy behavior, inappropriate outbursts of anger on minor problems or apathy, curtness and sarcasm towards clients or lack of interest. There may be a variety of small mistakes that occur repeatedly, but erratically. Although not all troublesome behavior at work stems from alcoholism, certain patterns of behavior may indeed indicate problem drinking.

Some of the most common job behaviors associated with alcoholism are:

  • Late arrivals, early departures, long lunch breaks.
  • Absences on Monday's and Fridays.
  • Absences before and after paydays or holidays.
  • Absences due to accidents, on and off the worksite.
  • Frequent absences from the work area.
  • Difficulty concentrating on work.
  • Quality of work fluctuates between excellent and very poor.
  • Missing deadlines.

Some of the common abnormal interpersonal interactions associated with alcoholism are:

  • Mood swings, usually between morning and afternoon.
  • Inability to take criticism.
  • Outbursts of anger, tears or laughter.
  • Complaints from co-workers, associates or clients.

Instead of being able to say "my drinking is causing these problems - maybe I have a drinking problem," the alcoholic will rationalize and invent endless excuses. The alcoholic will do anything to keep from facing the unpleasant truth. If the supervisor accepts the endless string of excuses, he or she gets sucked into the denial. He or she will wind up repeating the same excuse when confronted by their own managers about the alcoholic's performance. The supervisor may be trying to help the problem employee, but actually is permitting the person to continue drinking. The actions of concerned others - family, friends, managers, supervisor and co-workers - can contribute to the alcoholic's problem and are known as "enabling" behaviors. The minute a person "helps" the alcoholic by shielding him or her from the full impact of the consequences of drinking behavior, that person has stepped onto the denial roller coaster with the alcoholic. An "enabler" assists in maintaining everyone's delusion that drinking isn't the problem.

A manager, for example, may try everything to control the situation: giving the alcoholic less work or more time to complete work, lowering performance standards, bending rules, overlooking absences. But in the end, the problems will only get worse because reality persistently crashes the gate. The cover-ups, no matter how elaborate and no matter how long-in-the-making, can't go on forever.

Even supervisors who have been trained to identify a troubled employee may still be reluctant to act. Their personal beliefs may contribute to the denial process.

Beliefs That Permit Supervisory Enabling

Belief #1: "Richard is so intelligent, he couldn't have these problems", or "Someone who is as pretty as Mary...", or "Someone like John, who comes from such a good family...", or "Someone as young a Peter is..."

The Effect: If the supervisor has a narrow view of what alcoholics are like as people, many alcoholics won't fit the stereotype. Thus, stereotypes make it easy to dismiss the realities of the situation.

Belief#2: : If I try to do something about my troubled employee, it will be incredibly unpleasant for me, embarrassing for him or her, and only make it harder for everyone to cope.

The Effect: The supervisor has a misplaced sense of what is helpful. If a person is ruining his or her life by drinking, 'enabling' only supports the person's self-destructive behaviors.

Belief #3: : If I refer an employee to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for counseling, it will damage his or her career.

The Effect: The EAP is a readily available resource for managers and their employees. If the supervisor holds the belief that the EAP is not confidential, then this excellent support system goes unused. EAP programs are confidential and records of participation do not go into formal personnel files. Moreover, saving a job is hardly worth losing a life. Alcoholism is ultimately a fatal disease.

Help For Supervisor "Enablers"

If a manager or supervisor has gotten on the "enabling" roller coaster and doesn't know how to get off, the first step is to seek help and your EAP is a good place to start. The enabler needs to be able to:

  • Recognize his or her unhelpful pattern of interaction with the employee.
  • Understand that poor performance or unacceptable conduct may indicate alcoholism.
  • Understand that if alcoholism is indicated, then "enabling" allows the drinking to continue.
  • Realize that even the most caring people often become "enablers".
  • Ask for help in changing their "enabling" behaviors.

This is the first step to getting off the roller coaster of helping and being disappointed. Employee Assistance counselors can assist you in learning how "not to help". Call your EAP counselor. You, the supervisor can help by taking that step.

Supervisors and Managers as Enablers by Brenda Blair, M.B.A., was referenced for this article.


Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
National Crime Prevention Council

Written by Don Phillips
Edited by Mary McClain Georgevich

Cope Incorporated