Industry's million-dollar hangover

Sidney Katz June 18 1960

Industry's million-dollar hangover

Sidney Katz June 18 1960

Industry's million-dollar hangover


Problem drinkers waste a million dollars a day on the job. A few firms are learning how to spot—and help—these “hidden half men.” But most companies ignore the alcoholic problem that they’ve got but hate to acknowledge

Sidney Katz

PROBLEM DRINKERS in Canada cost their employers an estimated one million dollars every working day. This staggering sum includes the cost of slowed production, absenteeism, accidents, sickness, labor turnover, wasted materials, insulted customers, errors in executive decisions and poor plant morale. Yet most Canadian businesses not only do nothing to cure this annual multi-million-dollar hangover; they don’t seem to know it is there.

Shame and ignorance are at the root of this complacency. Many business leaders still regard alcoholics as wicked, morally degenerate creatures. Hence, they find it distasteful to discuss bibulous employees because “it will give our company a bad name.” Dr. W. H. Cruickshank, a vice-president of the Bell Telephone Company, Toronto, explains, “Shame of the disease, alcoholism, leads to concealment and concealment leads to a further spread of the disease.” That’s why labor experts sometimes refer to alcoholism in industry as “the VD of industrial relations.”

Lack of elementary knowledge about the chronic drinker in industry is the other reason why the problem has been so widely ignored. Many an astute business executive erroneously believes that he can instantly spot the drunkards on the payroll. He pictures them as bleary-eyed, unshaven Skid Row bums or desperate Lost Weekenders. Neither image is accurate. Chances are they’re outwardly pretty much the same as other employees in appearance, behavior,

skill and length of service. A study in one large plant revealed that eight out of ten problem drinkers had been with the firm for ten years or more.

Careful studies by competent investigators have clearly established that, each year, industry is footing the bill for a $300-million bender. The extent to which business is unaware of this enormous loss is reflected in the replies of fifty representative Canadian industries who responded to a Maclean’s questionnaire on the subject of industry and drinking.

Eighty-five percent of the firms reported that they had no “alcoholic problem”; seventy-five percent placed the number of problem drinkers on their payroll at less "than one percent.

Yet, in contradiction, a score of authoritative studies indicate that in the average industry at least three percent of those on the payroll drink to the point where their efficiency is impaired. Many experts believe the proportion to be much higher. The Alcoholism Research Foundation in Toronto, for example, discovered that six percent of the people in ten plants in one Ontario county were problem drinkers. “These figures arc valid; they were derived from a painstaking survey,” says Robert R. Robinson, education director of that organization.

After an exhaustive survey which included thirty thousand workers in fourteen firms, the Montreal Council of Social Agencies concluded, “Alcoholism is a major health and social problem in this city . . . In industry, problem drinkers occur at all levels — [among] executives and supervisors as well as clerical, skilled and unskilled workers.”

Several companies reported: “Other companies may have alcoholics, but we’re lucky. We don't.” Dr. John L. Norris, medical director, Eastman Kodak Company, states flatly, “A company that makes such a statement just doesn’t know what it’s talking about.” For the past sixteen years, Norris’s company has been conducting rehabilitation programs for alcoholics.

Eighty percent of the companies questioned by Maclean’s felt that there was little or no connection between heavy drinking and absenteeism.

This opinion is at complete variance with the conclusions reached by careful studies covering hundreds of thousands of employees in a wide variety of industries. A report of the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies states, “The alcoholic in industry loses an average of twenty-two working days annually from the acute effects of alcohol alone. In addition, he loses — each year — two days more than the nonalcoholic because of óther ailments.” Applying these estimates on a national scale, in 1959 drinking cost Canadian industry 2,400,000 working days — the equivalent of the time lost in strikes and lockouts during the same year.

But a much more insidious form of absenteeism is the “half man.” He’s CONTINUED ON PAGE 49


continued from page 19

“One big company almost fired a man because he was a hopeless drunk; today he’s head of the firm”

the drinker who comes to work partially inebriated or suffering from a hangover. He goes through the motions of working but usually he's useless, and often he's a serious safety risk. Under the circumstances. he's better olï at home.

Ninety-five percent of the firms stated that there was no connection between heavy drinking and industrial accidents.

Available facts and figures do not support this comforting opinion. Dr. E. M. Jell i nek. an internationally recognized authority on alcoholism, estimates that the rate of fatal accidents among alcoholics. both off and on the job, is twice as great as among other employees. Milton A. Maxwell, of Washington State University, who will become program director of the Alcoholism Foundation of Alberta this fall, studied the work records of forty-eight problem drinkers in one company: they had been involved in fifty-five accidents on the job. In the same period, a similar number of non-alcoholics had only twenty-seven accidents.

Accidents are usually costly in the modern industrial setting. An oil-refinery worker, with a hangover, turned the wrong valve. The cost to the company in wasted oil: fifty thousand dollars. A foreman, recovering from a binge, was directing a crew in the placement of a fifteen-ton press. His impaired judgment resulted in one death and three serious injuries.

Seventy-five percent of the firms stated that it would not pay them, in dollars ami cents, to embark on a program of rehabilitating their alcoholic employees.

The hundred or so industries in Canada and the United States that have had experience with such programs vigorously dispute this view. Problem drinkers are usually people with skill and experience. To replace even one such employee may cost several thousand dollars. The AllisChaInters Manufacturing Company. Milwaukee. estimates that its rehabilitation program saves the company eighty thousand dollars a year in reduced absenteeism alone. The firing rate for problem drinkers has dropped from ninety-five percent to eight percent in eleven years. Like other companies. Allis - Chalmers have found that of every ten employees seeking help, six or seven will achieve sobriety and hang onto their jobs.

Enlightened personnel practices with regard to alcoholism have enabled the Bell Telephone Company of Canada to salvage inspectors, engineers and star salesmen. "The benefits to the company are significant." says a Bell vice-president. In another multi-million-dollar Corporation one man was nearly fired because his bosses considered him "a hopeless drunk." Today, he's the head of the firm. In the vast Du Pont industry, two out of every three known alcoholics, including executives, have been successfully treated. A spokesman for the company

says. “Treatment cost us about a hundred dollars per alcoholic. 'That's an insignificant amount of money compared to the value of their restored usefulness to the company."

The alcoholic in industry remains largely undetected because business executives don't know how to identify him. 1 he stereotype they’re looking for is an


Rich desserts you must get into hind in skirts you can't begin to.


unkempt bum who hangs out in dives and is drunk most of the time. This picture-may fit the chronic, full-blown Skid Row alcoholic but only about one in ten alcoholics belongs in this category.

The alcoholic you'll likely meet in a plant or office is a far different creature. He can more properly be tagged as a “problem drinker." He's a true alcoholic in the sense that he can't resist the bottle and that drink is affecting his work and family life. But most of the time he's sober and manages to create the impression that he's performing his job adequately. The difficulty of distinguishing between the alcoholic and non-alcoholic

employee was underlined by a study of two thousand male alcoholics by Dr. Seiden D. Bacon and Ralph Henderson of the Yale Centre. Seven out of every ten men held jobs involving skill or special responsibility. Most of the patients were between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five — a period where men of ability are reaching their peak of productivity. The majority were married and living with their wives, in an established household. Nearly sixty percent had held their last steady job for at least three years; many for ten years or more.

This status-and-skill profile of the industrial alcoholic has been confirmed by studies elsewhere. After counting noses in Ontario's “County X." the Alcoholism Research Foundation reported. “Of every one hundred alcoholics in industry, sixty percent fall in the category of executives, white-collar workers, skilled and semiskilled labor." At Consolidated Edison of New York, the average length of service of 183 employees being treated for alcoholism was twenty-two years. At AllisChalmers, two thirds of the cases had been employed anywhere from five to fifteen years. A spokesman for the Bell Telephone Company of Canada says, "Alcoholism occurs throughout the work force . . . among craftsmen, line crews, middle management . . . and occasionally in higher management."

How can a problem drinker continue on the payroll year after year without being detected? One explanation is that

the disease of alcoholism has no sudden or dramatic onset. It develops gradually, almost imperceptibly, over a period of ten to fifteen years. On top of this, the drinker —aided and abetted by his coworkers. supervisor and family-—engages in a conspiracy of silence and deception to keep from getting fired.

This isn't too difficult in the early stages of addiction. His drinking is confined to evenings and week ends. II he's in bail shape on Monday morning, he'll have his wife phone the supervisor and explain that lie's got a cold or stomach

tin. Personnel officers refer to this variety of post-week-end sickness as "Monday pneumonia."

If he decides to nurse his hangover on the job. lie'll mask his condition by being immaculately groomed. He II chew breath purifiers to disguise the aroma of the picbreakfast drink. To avoid surveillance, he keeps away from others as much as possible. l o avoid making mistakes, he does as little work as possible. A food-industry executive told me. "When 1 was drinking. I wasn't lit to work until mid-afternoon. I might just as well have spent that time

at home." This is a perfect description of the "hidden half man" on the payroll.

If an employee's position gives him freedom to travel about, concealment is simple. A salesman recalls. "I was only required to cheek in at the head office twice a month. I chose times when I was at my best." Executives of many large corporations lind it easy to cover up: when they're under the weather, they phone in and explain. "I'm entertaining a customer." or "I'm dropping in at the branch office."

Because of the absence of dramatic

They work in fils and starts

symptoms, the early-stage alcoholic is rarely spotted by his supervisor or coworkers. Eater, as he sinks more deeply into the abyss of addiction, identification becomes easier. What are the telltale clues? Recently. Dr. Harrison M. Trice of Cornell University asked two hundred members of Alcoholics Anonymous. "What job-related clues would have indicated to an observer that you were developing a drinking problem?" Their replies. as well as information gathered from other sources, might well be used as a guide to industry to unmask the problem drinker before he reaches absolute rock bottom.

Increased absenteeism is one of the most noticeable features. Absences on Mondays and after pay days may become routine. During the week, he mayknock oil at noon. Having exhausted all reasonable alibis, he now offers ones which are unlikely. A forty - year - old clerk, who had no dramatic experience, said. "The TV station insisted I come over and try out for the Christmas play because I was so suited for the part." A woman receptionist (one out of six industrial alcoholics is female) explained. "Just as I was leaving for work this woman called and asked me to come to the hotel and see her because she was about to 11 y back to England. She saiil that she uas my first cousin — the one we all thought had been killed in a Eondon blitz. What else could I do but go?"

In time, the alcoholic stops making excuses anil simply stays away. His attendance record becomes studded with "no report" absences. Many authorities regard Dr. E. M. J el I i nek 's estimate that alcohol is responsible for the alcoholic losing twenty-two working days a year as conservative. I he average industrial worker is absent about eight days a year. But eleven alcoholics on the payroll of an abrasive manufacturer in Worcester. Mass., were away an average of forty-five days a year. I he members of A. A., interviewed by Dr. Trice, said their yearly absences totaled at least forty days.

The work habits of the developing alcoholic undergo a change. He works in fils and starts. "I'd go like blazes for an hour or so and then slump oil. says one reformed alcoholic. I líese spurts ot effort, according to Robert Strayer. director of an alcoholic clinic in Bridgeport. Conn., "are a reflection of the alcoholics guilt feelings about time lost from his job as well as an attempt to prove his adequacy." But these improvements in joh performance are short-lived and onl\ temporary detours in the inevitable decline in his efficiency, l or how can he work well with a hangover? Eor the middle-stage alcoholic, this is an agonizing combination of a throbbing headache, upset stomach, parched throat, burning thirst, the jitters, disturbed breathing and deadening fatigue. This is the result ot being forced to drink more to achieve his accustomed sense of psychological well-being. So massive has become his daily intake of alcohol that the liver is unable to slough oil certain toxic substances; his both chemistry is thrown awry in a dozen dille re n t ways. He stays up too late, he smokes too much and he doesn't eat.

Because lie's tired, foggy and tense, the alcoholic becomes an expert in procrastination. doing only what is absolutely essential. He's willing to settle for a third-rate job — anv kind of job. lo get it done. An accounting executive recalls. "I was so beaten and tired that in a single year i made bad decisions which cost the

company $150,000.” An advertising vicepresident says, "We were in line to get a new one-million-dollar account. Had I been able to think clearly for three or four hours on the day we made our presentation it would have been ours. But I could hardly stay awake. We lost out.” At this stage, many alcoholics drink on the job. This is easy for the executive who has a private office. The lower-status workers have to show some ingenuity. One lathe operator used to carry a "mickey” of rye concealed snugly in the top of his sock. Another skilled craftsman came to work every day with a thermos of café royal in his lunch box: it contained more liquor than coffee.

As he continues on the downward path, the alcoholic tends to become more prone to accidents and sickness. Within a period of a few months, one company had two serious accidents — involving heavy property damage and serious injury — because of drinking on the job. Another firm told me about an engineer, in charge of live steam, who worked an entire eight-hour shift in spite of an alcoholic blackout. "He could have killed a half dozen people," said his supervisor. The alcoholic's liability to accidents and sickness is reflected in the study by Sociologist Milton A. Maxwell of Washington State College. In one large industry, the average sickness payment made to alcoholic employees was $2.260. This was in marked contrast to the average of $769 paid to non-alcoholic employees during the same period of time. The disparity between these two figures might have been even greater had the alcoholic not been protected by his supervisor and coworkers. When he's under the weather, they generally assign him to less hazardous tasks and share his work with him.

The problem drinker in industry can also be detected by certain off-the-job clues. He's no longer satisfied with a few drinks with "the boys" after work. He'll arrive at the bar ahead of everyone else, drink faster and insist that his friends continue drinking instead of going home. When his friends don't go along with him. he seeks out — and finds — other chronic drinkers who share his prodigious thirst. His personality changes. He reacts sensitively to any kind of criticism — especially about his drinking. He becomes argumentative.

It's surprising how long a supervisor or foreman will continue to put up with a half man in his section. He's motivated both by practical and humanitarian considerations. Discussing one alcoholic employee, a supervisor explained, "When he's in good shape, Bill is the best and most experienced man I've got. Besides

— if 1 fire him — what'll his wife and kids live on?"

This is a tough question. A growing number of business firms are arriving at the conclusion that the only really satisfactory answer is to attempt to rehabilitate the industrial alcoholic. The cost is well within the reach of any industry, whether they have fifty or five hundred employees. While the program may vary from business to business, certain features are essential.

First and foremost, the right “climate” must be created. The company must

make it apparent that they regard alcoholism as a disease to be treated, not a sin to be punished. The approach to the drinking worker must be non-critical, non-moralistic and sympathetic. A formal statement from management can start the ball rolling. In essence, it should sa\ to the problem drinker. "We're not going to fire you because you're an alcoholic. We want to help you give up drinking. We're ready to give you counsel. medical advice and financial assistance." A top-to-bottom educational program is necessary to acquaint everybody

— especially supervisors and foremen — with the nature of alcoholism and how it can be recognized. "When the climate within a company is right." says a Yale University publication." the half men will overcome their reluctance to admit that they have a problem and need help.” Such has been the case at the Bell telephone Company of Canada, a pioneer in the rehabilitation of alcoholics. The Bell, well known for its progressive labor policies, probably has fewer alcoholics on its payroll than most Canadian industries. But there were still enough

“A drinker may ignore his family’s pleadings but he’ll be shocked to realize his job’s in danger”

cases to cause grave concern. In 1951, a document was distributed throughout the company announcing that, henceforth, the alcoholic would be treated — not fired. The message was driven home by talks from the medical department and articles in house publications.

Not unexpectedly, Bell supervisors have played an important role in the program since its inception. When a supervisor sees that drinking is interfering with a man's work, he privately takes him aside and acquaints him with the basic facts about alcoholism. "If you keep on drinking, you'll probably get to the point where you can't go on working," he tells him. lie urges the man to visit the medical department. Nearly all drinkers accept this invitation. "A man may ignore the pleadings of his family and friends but lie's shocked by the suggestion that his job is in danger," a Bell medical officer explains.

The medical officer now carries the ball. He checks on the man’s physical health and discusses his drinking problem with him. Ibis might take several visits. If necessary, he'll refer the drinker to some other source of help—the family doctor, a psychiatrist, an alcoholic clinic or AA. During the entire treatment period, the company doctor keeps in contact with the man. encouraging him and making the course as easy as possible for him. One traveling salesman, for example, was temporarily stationed in the Toronto office so he could regularly attend AA meetings. In advanced cases of alcoholism, the doctor may arrange for hospitalization. The costs are borne by the sickness benefit fund.

“We've been successful with half our alcoholics," says a Bell physician. “In

some cases, the results have been dramatic." A forty - eight - year - old female supervisor, for instance, was drinking so heavily that "a marked deterioration in her personality took place." She was drunk so much of the time she had to be removed from her job and hospitalized for six months. During this period, she received the equivalent of her salary in sickness benefits. She responded well to treatment and went back to work at a lower-grade job. Within a year, she worked her way back to her former position. She's been “dry" now for over six years.

Other companies report equally dramatic results in their attempts to reclaim “hopeless" alcoholics. The EastmanKodak Company of Rochester reports, “Sixty-five percent of our problem drinkers are back on the job and doing well.” The Consolidated Edison Company of New York reviewed the histories of 183 alcoholics who underwent treatment: sixty percent today are regarded as valuable employees; their periods of absence due to sickness have been slashed to one third. “The program more than pays its way," says Dr. S. Charles Franco, the company medical director. After treatment, six chronic drinkers employed by the Norton Company of Worcester, Mass., cut their annual loss in pay due to absence from $3,738 to $930.

Alcoholism—like cancer, heart disease and mental illness —is a major health and social problem. It is a problem which employers, both big and small, are especially able to attack. They can detect the individual alcoholic. They can motivate him to seek help. If industry accepts this urgent challenge, millions of dollars will be saved and thousands of lives reclaimed. if