Identifying Risky Drinkers

By Dori Meinert Nov 18, 2010

Screening workers for problem drinking may become a common practice for employee assistance programs by October 2011.

That’s the goal of numerous employers, employee assistance programs, federal officials and researchers who have signed on to the Brief Intervention Group Initiative. They are calling for representatives of employee assistance programs to routinely screen callers for risky drinking by asking three questions about their alcohol consumption:

  • How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?
  • How many drinks containing alcohol do you have on a typical day when you are drinking?
  • How often do you have four or more drinks on one occasion? Women are asked how often they have three drinks on one occasion.

Depending on the answers given, callers could be asked an additional seven questions. The questioning takes five to 25 minutes.

While the screening doesn’t identify alcoholics, it indicates how risky a person’s behavior is, says Eric Goplerud, a research professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“For work, that could mean absenteeism, putting others at risk, getting into arguments with supervisors or co-workers. So, the impact on work productivity is substantial,” he says.

About 10 percent of full-time employed adults and 11 percent of part-time workers are substance-dependent, according to a 2008 study by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The National Institutes of Health estimates that the economic cost of alcohol abuse is $184 billion a year.

Yet unless a worker calls an employee assistance program specifically for alcohol or drug treatment, the substance abuse problem often goes undetected, Goplerud says. Routinely asking about alcohol use increases the detection rate dramatically, he adds.

In two pilot studies conducted by Aetna and OptumHealth, the providers saw significant jumps in the number of employees identified with alcohol-use issues after the screening was implemented. During a six-month period, the percentage of workers identified as having risky drinking patterns increased from 7.5 percent to 20.1 percent in the OptumHealth study. Across five months, Aetna staff saw the percentage of employees identified as risky drinkers go from 1 percent to 18 percent with the standardizedscreening. The results of additional pilot studies are still being analyzed.

Early estimates indicate that businesses can save as much as $1,400 a month per employee screened and identified as having risky drinking patterns. In addition, Goplerud says he expects that the studies will show a decline in the number of days that employees miss work.

Alcohol screening and brief intervention is the fourth most cost-effective preventive intervention that can be done in primary care, Goplerud says. The goal is to adapt that model to employee assistance programs.

Early funding for the initiative was provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the federal Center for Substance Abuse of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Two-thirds of the funding now comes from 10 corporate sponsors.

For more information and to see a list of participating employee assistance programs, visit


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