Typically when we picture an alcoholic, it’s someone who is always drunk and has let their life fall completely into shambles because of their drinking. This is not always the reality of an alcoholic. In fact, the National Institutes of Health has identified “functional alcoholic” as a subtype of alcoholism. It’s likely you’ve heard that term before in some capacity as functioning alcoholics make up about 19.5% of U.S. Alcoholics[i]. A functioning alcoholic isn’t a formal medical diagnosis, but rather a term used to describe someone who is dependent on alcohol but can still function in society. When it comes to your fellow employees, the signs of alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, and someone just being drunk at work are very different.

Alcohol use disorder is a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, or continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems. Alcohol use disorder includes a level of drinking that’s sometimes called alcoholism[ii]. There are a number of signs of an alcoholic at work that indicate your coworker or employee has crossed the line from a heavy drinker to an alcoholic. While everyone is different and some people exhibit these signs more noticeably than others, if you suspect your coworker is an alcoholic, it’s important to say something to a supervisor as soon as possible.

Signs of an Alcoholic Employee or Coworker

When the use or abuse of alcohol interferes with your coworker or employee’s ability to function normally at work or impairs them enough to where their duties aren’t completed, it’s important to know what signs to look for.

  • They smell like alcohol
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Excessive use of sick leave
  • Hides alcohol in their desk
  • Sneaks alcoholic drinks throughout the day
  • Falls asleep at work
  • Frequently missed deadlines
  • Often comes to work hungover
  • Patterns of absences such as the day after payday or frequent Monday or Friday absences
  • Staggering, or unsteady gait
  • Mood or behavior changes
  • Avoidance of supervisory contact, especially after lunch
  • Excessive use of mouthwash or breath mints

While it isn’t up to you to diagnose the problem, these are signs that can indicate your coworker or employee could be an alcoholic[iii].

Negative Effects of Alcoholism in the Workplace

Alcoholism in the workplace not only negatively affects the person drinking, but it also impacts their employers, employees, coworkers, and the company. Drinking at work not only increases the possibility of employees getting injured, but it also increases the likelihood of workplace accidents. Alcohol can also cause a severe lack of coordination and concentration negatively impacting the employee’s work performance. This reduces productivity, which in turn impacts business goals and objectives[iv].

Here are a few problems that can arise as a result of employee alcohol use:

  • Poor decision making
  • Injuries at work
  • Decreased professionalism
  • Missed deadlines
  • Confrontational behavior with supervisors and coworkers

Alcohol abuse in the workplace is associated with high costs to employers including absenteeism, turnover, accidents, and increased health care costs. Alcohol is by far the most used and misused psychoactive substance in the workforce, and 1–3 out of 10 employees can be characterized as risky drinkers in need of interventions, that is, having a consumption pattern that increases the risk for social, legal, medical, occupational, domestic and economic problems[v].

How to Handle Alcoholism in the Workplace

Many people who abuse substances are reluctant to seek help because they are in denial. They reject the idea of having a problem or that coworkers or employees can even identify that they have a problem. People who abuse alcohol are often sensitive to the stigma of being labeled an addict or alcoholic and they could fear for their job if they admit to having a problem.

Leaders have important roles to play in managing employees with addiction, including developing internal policies, training managers to recognize signs of substance misuse, guiding employees to available resources, and taking action when workplace policies are violated. All employers should have a written drug-free workplace policy that is shared with all employees and clearly outlines expectations regarding alcohol and drug use. If you think a coworker might be abusing alcohol in the workplace, you could let them know you’re concerned about their well-being if you’re comfortable speaking with them about it or you can speak with their supervisor.

A supervisor or someone else in an appropriate position may refer employees who are misusing substances to an EAP based on observed and documented behaviors and performance problems and/or on employee admission of addiction.

Some employers may offer help to employees—perhaps time off to seek treatment and a return-to-work agreement—in lieu of termination. Time off to seek treatment for addiction may be covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act or state law. Of course, whether to accept help is the employee’s decision[vi].

If you or someone you work with has a substance abuse problem, there is help available. Please contact Coastal Detox today at 877-978-3125.

[i] National Institutes of Health: Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes

[ii] Mayo Clinic: Alcohol Use Disorder

[iii] United States Office of Personnel Management: Alcoholism in the Workplace

[iv] Alcohol Rehab Guide: Alcoholism in the Workplace

[v] National Library of Medicine: Association between alcohol consumption and impaired work performance

[vi] Society for Human Resource Management: Employing and Managing People with Substance Use Addictions