Q: We had to shut down our all-hands Zoom meeting three weeks ago when it became clear one manager had had too much to drink. He kept interrupting the presenter until we muted his mike. I texted him and told him I was excusing him from the meeting and placing him on unpaid administrative leave. After that, I realized there was no point in continuing the meeting as the situation had distracted other employees.
The investigation into this situation revealed he wasn’t the only employee drinking on the job. I’m stunned. We’d kept our company strong despite COVID, or so I’d thought. We fired the manager. We’re left wondering what to do about the other drinkers.
Uncertainty, stress, financial insecurity, boredom — is it any wonder that many individuals appear to be drinking their way through the pandemic?
According to the market research firm Nielsen, U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages rose 55% in the week ending March 21 and online alcohol sales were up 243%. The health and safety software firm, Protecting, surveyed 1,300 employees working from home; 93% reported drinking more alcohol during than prior to the pandemic. Nine out of 10 individuals surveyed admitted drinking alcohol while working from home, with 83% drinking at least twice per week when working from home. Their drinking ranged from a glass or two with lunch to a daily bottle of wine.
Although you sent the message that you won’t allow obvious intoxication during the workday when you fired the manager, you can’t squash all pandemic-triggered drinking. Many individuals turn to alcohol as a coping strategy when they feel powerless or stretched thin. The pandemic has disrupted everyone’s routines and deprived them of healthier outlets such as gym workouts and casual meet-ups with friends. The freedom of working from home has inspired many employees to do things they wouldn’t dream of doing at the work site.
What can employers do?
You can create a crystal-clear policy, reminding managers and employees you won’t allow drinking on the job. Unfortunately, the virtual environment makes workday drinking harder to spot.
You can tackle some issues that trigger employee drinking.
Isolation: Managers can reach out to employees to provide connection. When conducting departmental or team meetings, ask all employees to use video feed, which creates a greater sense of connection.
Anxiety: Employers need to provide employees as much information and predictability as possible. All-hands “here’s our status and here’s our path forward” meetings boost morale and help combat uncertainty.
Flexibility: The millions of school-age children kept home from school created unprecedented stress for employees struggling to meet the needs of their kids and their jobs. Research shows that drinking for respondents with kids in the household increased more than those without kids. Allow your employees to reorder their working hours to create a schedule that works best for them and optimizes productivity and performance for you as an employer. For employees home-schooling children, this means work done before the kids wake up, in snatches throughout the school day, and after the kids finish dinner.
Depression and problem behaviors: Provide employees access to employee assistance programs and motivational coaches who can teach alternative coping strategies.
Managerial savvy: Train your managers to spot warning signs and reach out when they suspect employees are having problems. These signs include unexplained absences; bloodshot eyes; slurred speech; incomplete assignments; sloppy work; belligerence; loud, excessive laughter; unsteady gait; mood and behavioral changes.
Finally, your company is strong. It’s led by a leader who spotted a problem and took quick action. That alone sends a powerful, positive message to your employees.