Re-imagining the workplace: The scourge of alcohol or other substances abuse in the workplace

I grew up with that attitude then that there was nothing wrong with drinking and being drunk based on my experience in the village. This experience and of course the assumption that it was ‘cool’ to drink and be drunk most of the time was to be challenged by the new urban and cosmopolitan experience.


As someone with a village background, I always viewed alcohol as a social thing that people took to facilitate socialisation and connection with each other. The elderly even brought it to the ‘workplace’ where they worked and had opaque beer in the process. They sang songs, ate meaty foods and drank hot soup coming from the boiled meet. It looked fun and as children we looked forward to it and wanted to grow older quickly so that we could partake of the delicacy that opaque beer was.

In our games as kids, we imitated the elderly as drunk persons. We loved them drunk because they became lighter in attitude and played with us. Our grannies became more flexible to telling folktales, which under normal circumstances was not easy to get. When granny was drunk, the kids easily turned the night into a movie one with granny starring, featuring a number of fascinating animal characters like rabbit who could have made Denzel Washington green with envy with his main character theatrical escapades. There were some old men and women who were never seen sober and that didn’t seem like a problem in the village at first. The home brewed opaque beer was available most of the weekends, illegal as it was.

I grew up with that attitude then that there was nothing wrong with drinking and being drunk based on my experience in the village. This experience and of course the assumption that it was ‘cool’ to drink and be drunk most of the time was to be challenged by the new urban and cosmopolitan experience.

There were some men and women who drank like fish but because most of them were working for specific organisations in the workplace, they tended to make weekends their days of arousing and binging. Some wouldn’t stop even during the week, going to the popular beer gardens known in my language as ebhawa to sip away the much sought-after liquid. This was, of course a new experience for the village boy to see these people struggle in the morning going to work and coming back home to drop their jackets and bags sometimes and proceeding to the ‘gardens’ where they sat in rounds and passed the calabash while in the process sharing stories as men and women.

In the village, it wasn’t easy for anyone to drink every day because the bhawas were too far from the village and so most villagers visited them once in a blue moon and most of the time over the weekends. There were some though, who cycled to these places more frequently, but the majority were content with the home brewed version that would be available over the weekends and sometimes even once a month. This would lead to the even more toxic and health hazardous versions of alcohol called tototo, 7 days or samdenyula being taken by beer hungry men and women. This, perhaps, would pass as the first realisation of the perils of alcohol for me in the village.

These versions were toxic and rendered men and women incapable of living functional lives. They would be viewed in the village as izidakwa, useless men and women who abused alcohol, what Chinua Achebe called efulefus in Things Fall Apart. They lacked the springy feet that the character of Okonkwo had in the same book.

These versions were not even called utshwala which is the umbrella name for all types of alcohol in my language. They were just called by their name, with tototo being tototo and never referred to as utshwala. There was a lot of stigma attached to these and maybe this connects well with my later understanding of alcohol and its challenges in life in general and in the workplace in particular. A friend of mine, whose father drank with reckless abandon had to come face to face with an insult from one of our play mates who retorted in Shona, ‘hupenyu hwababa vako ndwewe mubhawa’ meaning that ‘your father’s life is dedicated to drinking.’ This meant that this stigma was there both in the village and in the urban areas although coming in different versions.

I have had to learn that in the industrial and workplace age we are in, alcohol can become a big problem, robbing people of their careers and sometimes lives. There comes a point when something goes wrong, and alcohol and other substances take control leading to obsessive consumption which may lead to dysfunctionalities that become difficult to handle in the workplace. One would think that such a problem belongs to the alcoholic and that if they decide to drink and become an alcoholic they can easily dismiss them and be free from their ’irresponsible’ behaviour.

Unfortunately, that is not the case especially in South Africa where alcoholism is classified as an illness and no person can easily be dismissed based on an illness, implying that an employer cannot fire an employee if he is an alcoholic or addict. This has to be handled the way sick and disabled people are handled, and treatment should be part of the employer’s strategy.

The Zimbabwean situation is currently a difficult one and such socio-economic conditions are bound to result in such unproductive behaviours as alcoholism. Lack of training and understanding may result in the employer mishandling this complicated matter resulting in unnecessary loss of jobs and livelihoods in situations where knowledge would have resulted in meaningful solutions.

This problem, for example, could hit a company’s top performing employee say in the sales department, rendering a selling maestro incapable of continuing with his or her brilliant selling prowess. Should an employer run to the code of conduct and point at a section that gives them the right to hear and dismiss? What about business prudence? What happens if this alcoholic salesman or woman gets assistance, recuperates, and joins competition?

Yes the Zimbabwean law and of course the need for a sharp and focused workforce do place one in a position where they can practise their right to dismiss especially if their drunken state renders them incapable of executing their duty, but one wants to maybe go a step further and think deeply about what that means holistically. It is important, particularly for the Zimbabwean manager to work within their socio-economic conditions and turn what, under normal circumstances would be clear cases of thinking survival, to thinking of ways of salvaging what may appear as hopeless situations. It is embracing the survival mode for any manager that makes them see all problems needing the code. Right now, under our difficult conditions, a proactive employer would begin to talk about such ills as alcohol and substance abuse so that employees may open up and get help before it’s too late. We have done this regarding challenges such as HIV (Aids) and it has helped many. It is easy to then think that it’s obvious pandemics and endemics that need such attention when even such ‘silent killers’ as alcohol and substance abuse do need our attention. Let’s talk more about this workplace challenge in our next episode of this column.

  • Bhekilizwe Bernard Ndlovu’s training is in human resources training, development and transformation, behavioural change, applied drama, personal mastery and mental fitness. He works for a South African organisation as a learning and development Specialist, while also doing a PhD with Wits University where he looks at violent strikes in the South African workplace as a researcher. Ndlovu worked as a human resources manager for a number of blue-chip companies in Zimbabwe and still takes keen interest in the affairs of people and performance management in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on [email protected]

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