An exclusive interview with Dorte Tommerup, a Danish addiction counsellor who is currently working at the European Parliament in Luxembourg.
Manuela Boghian: What happens when you have an alcoholic person in an organisation?
Dorte Tommerup: If you have one alcoholic in a workplace you can get at least 10 people around them who cover up and don’t dare say anything about it. A lot of people have problems at their work because of this. Often people come to the medical service with burnout because they are doing their colleague’s work. Then you discover that the colleague is an active alcoholic who’s incapable of working: coming in late, leaving early and having long lunches. Their colleagues often get sick because they don’t know how to handle the situation.
Manuela: What’s the role of codependent people in this?
Dorte: A codependent person is the one who is actually doing his/her job. They give the alcoholic the impression that there’s no problem, and so why would the alcoholic go into treatment if there’s nothing wrong?
Manuela: Why do colleagues of alcoholics hide the problem?
Dorte: Sometimes it’s fear. Fear of the reaction of the alcoholic if you say something. Sometimes these colleagues play the ‘good person’ in the office. They take credit for the extra work they do.
During my studies I did a survey asking people why they didn’t report their colleague who had an alcohol problem. The answers were: “he’s my boss, I can’t do that”, or “it’s not my problem”, or “he’s doing his job anyway”. You need to educate people about it. If you tell an alcoholic he’s got a problem it’s nothing new to him. He knows it and there were probably others before you saying the same thing. But you have to propose a solution and tell him exactly where he can go. That’s why I’m here: they can get an appointment with me right away.
Manuela: Is hiding addiction in the workplace also a cultural thing?
Dorte: Alcoholism has always been a taboo. If you’re sharing an office with a colleague and every morning he’s reading his newspapers and holding it 20 cm from his eyes, wouldn’t you suggest he gets an eye test? But if someone has a problem with alcohol, you probably wouldn’t do anything.
Manuela: If the alcoholic leaves his job does that solve the problem?
Dorte: Yes, but not right away. An alcoholic is like an elephant who takes up the whole office. Everybody’s talking about it and someone else is doing his work. So when he leaves, that whole system will still be in place.
If you have someone alcoholic in a junior position the impact is much less. But if he’s your boss…
Manuela: What do people generally think about Alcoholics Anonymous?
Dorte: When I tell people about AA they sometimes say: “I don’t want to go to AA”.
“Do you know what AA is?”
“Then don’t say you don’t want to go if you’ve never tried. I’ll pick you up tonight, we’ll go to a meeting and tomorrow you can tell me you don’t want to go anymore.”
Going to an AA meeting for first time is the biggest problem. They don’t know how it is and they don’t want to go alone. Sometimes we do a role-play in my office before we go just so they know what to expect. What I usually hear after the meeting is: “If I knew it was like that, I would have gone before.”
Sometimes I get family members saying: “My husband spoke to you yesterday and today he’s drinking! You’re not helping him!” You just have to live with this kind of thing. If someone has been drinking for 30 years he will need more than one day to get sober.