Q: I'm a mid-level manager at an insurance company. We have been downsizing, and we are now down to only a few core employees, so everyone is handling a lot of work. A colleague who is a key employee has been dealing with serious depression and alcoholism, which is keeping her from meeting her responsibilities. She has had episodes that have caused her to miss multiple days from work. The entire office is supportive of her, but it is now becoming a problem and is affecting the ability of the office to function. It's a particular burden because she is one of the few employees here with check-signing authority. This has been going on for about a year. Any suggestions?

A: "In a small operation, when key people are impaired, it can totally disrupt the office's operations and even bring them to a standstill," said employee-assistance counselor Bernie McCann, chairman of the resource committee at the Employee Assistance Professionals Association in Arlington. The group provides information to managers, human resources officials and workers coping with personal problems affecting the workplace. McCann said fears about the downsizing are probably exacerbating the problems.

Alcoholism and depression can have ripple effects in a company, he added, with co-workers struggling with increased workloads and morale-busting disputes over how to handle the issue. He said the staff will frequently splinter: "One-half of the building will be enablers who view the situation sympathetically, and the other half will say, 'I'm sick and tired of the bum,' " he said. McCann said some co-workers jump in to work 12-hour days to compensate, and others goof off because, with managers distracted, they are less likely to get caught.

McCann suggested that the letter writer meet with the co-worker and urge her to contact an employee-assistance professional, who is a counselor and management consultant trained to deal with these thorny situations. The woman may need to take a leave of absence to recover or may need to switch to a part-time schedule, he said.

Most companies now employ an EAP organization that can provide such help; companies that don't have a regular EAP arrangement can find one through the Arlington-based organization or on its Web site (www.eap-association.com).

McCann said the office would benefit from a group discussion conducted by a qualified EAP therapist, who could help them reassign tasks more appropriately for now.

He stressed that co-workers should be aware that the woman's job is protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act because both depression and alcoholism are areas covered by the legislation. Thus, any employment actions should be taken thoughtfully and carefully.

Alcohol-related problems are particularly widespread. Surveys indicate that about 6.5 percent of executive, administrative and managerial employees drink heavily, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

A new book, "Productivity Lost: Alcohol and Drugs in the Workplace," by Dale A. Masi and Peverly Jo Reyes, addresses the effects of alcoholism on the job and how to identify alcohol abuse. The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention also operates two helpful hot lines: 1-800-WORKPLACE, which provides work-oriented advice, and 1-800-662-HELP, which can refer callers to treatment resources within their own communities.

Q: I would like to know if an employer has the technology to capture your e-mail messages when you log on at work. I sell telecommunications equipment, but I have a small business on the side selling arts and crafts items to retailers. I usually only get about two e-mails a day at work. But I have my suspicions about whether the company has begun capturing and reviewing my messages.

A: A timely question. In a recent study by the American Management Association for The Washington Post, 37 percent of companies said they track, record and review employees' office e-mail. An additional 9 percent of firms nationwide reported that they plan to begin monitoring workers' e-mail in the future. There are new software packages that make it easy for companies to keep such records.

Some companies told the association they consider misuse or private use of office e-mail to be a firing offense. About one-quarter of the firms surveyed said they terminated workers for doing it, and about half the companies said they had given workers either formal or informal reprimands or warnings.

Companies are generally viewed as within their legal rights if they terminate workers for improper use of company-owned equipment--and operating your own business on company time might well qualify, with or without the e-mail.

The survey of 1,139 firms, conducted for The Post by the management association last month, found the practice of monitoring e-mail most common among financial services firms and at companies with more than $1 billion in annual sales, with about half of these firms reporting they do it. The monitoring is least common in public administration positions and among companies with fewer than 50 employees, with less than one-quarter of the employers saying they do it. The survey was conducted for the association by research firm TechnoMetrica, based in Oradell, N.J.

Most companies permit some private use of e-mail as long as it doesn't get out of hand or impede workers from handling their regular work. Some companies, particularly those that require very long work hours, are particularly lenient in this regard, viewing some use of office equipment as helpful to workers seeking to maintain a better work-life balance.


Several readers bristled at our response to the questions about how best to acknowledge deaths in the families of colleagues and clients. We suggested donations to charitable organizations and home-cooked meals, but we also mentioned flowers as a universal display of condolence. These readers noted that many Jews do not send or display flowers at deaths, and might be made uncomfortable if they were to receive them. "With the myriad of different religions and cultures in our society, the best thing would be to ask," one reader wrote. Good point.


Got a tough workplace question? Trying to deal with difficult co-workers or handle a thorny management question? Is the work-family balance giving you vertigo? Want to be more effective on the job?

We'll take your questions, comments and concerns to workplace and management experts. We can't answer the letters personally, but we'll include many of your stories in upcoming columns and articles.

Write to workplace reporter Kirstin Downey Grimsley at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or send e-mail to downeyk@washpost.com. Please include your name, address and telephone numbers--although we won't publish your name without your permission.