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Alcohol and Alcoholism

If you drink alcoholic beverages, it's important to know whether your drinking patterns are safe, risky or harmful. If you've tried to cut back, or you are worried that your drinking will lead to problems with your family or your job, the EAP can provide a confidential referral to the right resource.

To find out if your drinking may be putting you and others at risk, take a free, anonymous and confidential assessment screening on the right side of the EAP home page. If you are considering cutting down on your drinking, you will find the information in Rethinking Drinking helpful. If you are worried about a family member’s drinking, the EAP can provide support and information about how to help.


Alcoholism, also known as “alcohol dependence,” is a disease that includes four symptoms:

  • Craving: A strong need, or compulsion, to drink.
  • Loss of control: The inability to limit one’s drinking on any given occasion.
  • Physical dependence: Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, occur when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking.
  • Tolerance: The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol in order to “get high.”

People who are not alcoholic sometimes do not understand why an alcoholic can’t just “use a little willpower” to stop drinking. However, alcoholism has little to do with willpower. Alcoholics are in the grip of a powerful “craving,” or uncontrollable need, for alcohol that overrides their ability to stop drinking. This need can be as strong as the need for food or water.

Although some people are able to recover from alcoholism without help, the majority of alcoholics need assistance. With treatment and support, many individuals are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives.

Many people wonder why some individuals can use alcohol without problems but others cannot. One important reason has to do with genetics. Scientists have found that having an alcoholic family member makes it more likely that if you choose to drink you too may develop alcoholism. Genes, however, are not the whole story. In fact, scientists now believe that certain factors in a person’s environment influence whether a person with a genetic risk for alcoholism ever develops the disease. A person’s risk for developing alcoholism can increase based on the person’s environment, including where and how he or she lives; family, friends, and culture; peer pressure; and even how easy it is to get alcohol. 

A Safe, Healthy and Drug-free Workplace

A safe, healthy and drug-free workplace is everybody’s responsibility. By knowing what to do (and what not to do), employees can play a powerful role in improving workplace safety and encouraging co-workers with alcohol or drug problems to seek help.

Most of us know someone, perhaps a family member, friend or co-worker, who has been affected by alcohol or drug abuse in some way.  Though some of the signs may vary by drug of choice, what you see that person doing and how you interact with him/her is often the same, regardless of the substance being used.  Both on and off the job, symptoms of alcohol or drug use may be physical (chills, smell of alcohol, sweating, weight loss, physical deterioration); emotional (increased aggression, anxiety, burnout, denial, depression, paranoia); and/or behavioral (excessive talking, impaired coordination, irritability, lack of energy, limited attention span, poor motivation).  It is important to note, however, that if an employee displays these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean he/she has a substance abuse problem. 

Signs that substance use may be a workplace hazard include:

  • Creating mishaps, being careless and repeatedly making mistakes.
  • Damaging equipment or property.
  • Being involved in numerous accidents.
  • Displaying careless actions in the operation of hazardous materials or equipment.
  • Being unreliable, not being where he or she should be.
  • Showing a lack of detail on performing routine job duties.
  • Being unwilling to follow directions and being argumentative.
  • Giving elaborate, unbelievable excuses for not fulfilling responsibilities.
  • Not carrying one’s load.
  • Taking unnecessary risks.
  • Disregarding safety for self and others.

For your own safety, it is important that you not tolerate such conduct by a co-worker using alcohol or drugs.  However, this can be a challenge—sometimes it may seem easier to ignore the problem and unwittingly enable the employee’s behavior to continue.  For example, you may cover up for a co-worker by providing alibis or doing his/her work; develop reasons why his/her continued use of alcohol or drugs is understandable; or just avoid contact altogether.  Trying to take responsibility by throwing out the person’s drugs or making idle threats also tends to be ineffective.

Employee alcohol and drug use cannot be taken lightly, especially in environments where patients rely on care providers and employees rely on each other for safety.  While supervisors can confront workers whose behavior affects their job performance, co-workers may be able to help before this occurs.  However, it is important for employees to understand that it is not their responsibility to diagnose problems.  Rather, they should observe behavior and focus on safety.  Though notifying a supervisor may eventually be necessary, a co-worker may have significant influence using the right approach.  If you suspect someone has a problem:

  • Identify with the person and show concern.  Say you have noticed a change in behavior and express your concern for their safety and that of other workers.
  • Describe your observation of their behavior, using specific days and/or times rather than saying “you always” and other similar phrases.
  • Connect the behavior to the alcohol or drug use (or suspected use).
  • Urge the person to get help and offer information about how to get it. Partners Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provides confidential, short-term counseling and referral services as a benefit to employees.  Their professionally trained counselors can be reached at 1-866-724-4EAP. For more information about local resources, you can also call 1-800-662-HELP or visit the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website.
  • Tell the person you will no longer hide the problem for him/her, but do not make idle threats.  Be willing and able to follow through.
  • Explain how the person’s problem affects you and others at work.
  • Reconfirm your concern.  You do not need to get him/her to admit he/she has a substance problem.  You must stand your ground with your co-worker, be consistent with your actions and be willing to follow through on any threats you make.

It is important to note, however, that even after confronting a co-worker using these steps, he/she may still be unwilling to accept or acknowledge the alcohol or drug problem.  When you have done all you can and the person’s behavior is such that it directly affects you and your ability to do your job, or it affects the safety of patients, families and the community, it may be appropriate to involve others.  This may mean taking your concerns about safety to a supervisor, who may have more options through the workplace to help the person get assistance. 

(Content provided with permission from US Department of Labor and US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)

Alcohol and Youth 

Adolescents who enter treatment are more likely to achieve long-term sobriety than those who enter as adults.  The Massachusetts General Hospital Addiction Recovery Management Service (ARMS) specializes in supporting teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15 and 25, and their families, as they deal with their substance abuse-related problems, and provides helpful information for parents. Parents can also learn more at Partnership for a Drug-Free America and Massachusetts Substance Abuse Information and Education, which provides a Helpline at 800-327-5050.

Partners HealthCare Resources for Treatment of Alcohol and Other Drug Addiction

Addiction Medicine at Brigham & Women's Faulkner Hospital

MGH Center for Addiction Medicine

McLean Hospital Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Program

More Alcohol Information

Additional resources for self-help/support groups, support for health care providers, and alcohol/drug information 

If you are concerned about your drinking, please take a free, anonymous screening.
Anonymous Alcohol Screening

For more information or to discuss addiction concerns please contact Partners Employee Assistance Program at

In case of emergency, please call 911 or your local hospital emergency service.

This content was last modified on: 06/13/2018

Partners EAP is not a service for the general public.

In case of emergency, please call 911 or your local hospital emergency service.

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