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Alcoholism in the workplace

Katharine McLennan, Board Director, shares her personal and professional perspective.

"As an executive coach, HR executive, and recovering alcoholic who doesn’t drink a drop of alcohol nowadays, I would like to share my personal and professional perspective on alcoholism in the workplace.
 
Instead of looking at options such as exercising or meditation, I started trying the one glass after work routine to ‘take the edge off’ as I was nearing 40. I found a glass of cold wine a refreshing way to end the day and transition to my home environment, relaxing with my family and leaving behind the woes of the crazy work world I was managing – always on, always going.
 
I hadn’t really drunk much my entire life until 40. In fact, my husband at the time had been rendered a paraplegic from an alcoholic hitting him on his motorbike at age 17, so drinking was never much part of our life. When 40 happened, though, middle life had its way of creating an angst that was pacified by alcohol.
 
It didn’t take long for alcohol to creep up on me and it affected all parts of my life: my family life AND my work life. At work, I began to make shortcuts, think far less effectively, lose patience with my staff, and lose patience with myself in regular bouts of anxiety and depression accelerated by alcohol, which after all, is a depressant. From being a top performing executive I became unreliable and unfocused.
 
Far more harmful, however, was the drinking I did at our office functions. I had what I now diagnose as the 'Russian Roulette' syndrome at these functions. I could have a sip of alcohol and be perfectly well behaved, or I could have one or two glasses of wine and be a thoroughly enjoyable companion for my work colleagues. I could also have a sip of alcohol and instantaneously turn into Dr Jekyll, become what is known as a black-out drinker (not remembering what I said/what I did) and make a complete fool of myself and be a complete pain-in-the-back-side to my colleagues.
 
Needless to say, that kind of behaviour does not help you maintain good standing in corporate settings. And I will particularly say that this applies to female alcoholics. In my anecdotal experience, female alcoholics are far less tolerated than their male counterparts. In my observation, we will lose our jobs far faster than males. The day I lost my job was the day I stopped drinking. I was flabbergasted at that very point to realise that I was an alcoholic. I simply couldn’t see it until then.
 
Alcoholism is often not noticeable as many executives have become expert at hiding their usage level. Much of it is acceptable at the multiple dinners we attend, the travelling we do and the conferences that we attend. Executive teams and boards are finding themselves more and more on the road, staying at hotels, eating at functions that are always accompanied by wine and beer. And when they are home, the easiest way to wind down after a stressful day is that glass of alcohol; many will tell you that they can’t wind down without the aid of alcohol.
 
Not all executives are alcoholics! Many of us can safely drink alcohol and know how to handle it. I am one of the third of executives who can’t. Alcohol is a drug that helps us relax. We serve it up at our work functions so we can wind down and talk to each other in ways that we can’t seem to do without it. The problem, of course, is that we don’t learn to relax in more natural ways and have the types of genuine conversations with each other without alcohol – the types of conversations that we need to nurture so we don’t have the stressful work environments in the first place.
 
The non-alcoholic will not understand the nature of the disease that is far more prevalent amongst us than any of us believe. I certainly didn’t understand alcoholism until I found myself having to admit I was one. Until I turned 40 and started drinking, I thought alcoholics were simply people who had no will power. I now understand the disease in so much more complexity and it is far more complex than I have the words for this article to use."

 

If alcohol has caused issues in your life, our Healing Your Life program may help you understand unresolved issues and help you find a pathway forward. Our Quest for Life programs are drug and alcohol free.

 

- Katharine McLennan is the Senior Vice President, People and Culture at Cochlear. Her career spans corporate strategy, execution and leadership. Katharine is a member for the Quest for Life Foundation Board.

 

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