Are Americans Drinking at Work?

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Part of the complete guide to understanding addiction

Current data indicates that many Americans are drinking at work. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, close to 30 million individuals in the US ages 12 and older experienced alcoholism in 2021. Past surveys showed that alcohol use and impairment affected an estimated 15 percent of the American workforce.

The term “alcoholic” often conjures images that imply negative characteristics like unemployment, poor hygiene, broken relationships, and so forth. But with 14 million Americans [1] meeting the alcohol use disorder criteria, this image encompasses very few of the individuals actually suffering from alcoholism. Many alcoholics work regularly and have extracurricular activities outside of the home. For a while, many can maintain the facade of a balanced life and control over their drinking. In fact, this is such a widespread phenomenon that it has earned its own name: Functional Alcoholism. Unfortunately, their alcohol use inevitably spills over into their workplaces, disrupting their coworker relationships, safety, and job performance.

What is the Impact of Alcohol in the Workplace?

The impact of alcohol in the workplace ranges greatly, depending on the individual’s position and dependence on others. Some individuals with alcohol dependence may find it possible to keep their sober and inebriated lives separate. Unfortunately for most, there is an inevitable spillover that not only impacts the individual and their families, but their coworkers and businesses as well.

Drug use and drinking on the job affect coworkers greatly from a mental, physical, and emotional standpoint, yet this precarious situation is often ignored and left without guidance.

Coworkers are often left picking up the slack and fixing the mistakes of those who were either unable to complete their work or did so inadequately due to intoxication or side effects of a hangover. Alcoholics who work at jobs more physical in nature may also be at risk of injury not only to themselves but to coworkers as well. Relationships at work can become strained, short-tempered, and argumentative.

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How to Deal With an Employee Drinking at Work

Employees who suspect another coworker is consuming alcohol while at work should be wary of covering for the individual. Alcohol consumption at work is a complex issue, but covering for a struggling colleague will only enable them to further pursue their addiction. It is never the answer.

If you encounter a coworker drinking at work, let them know that you will support them unconditionally should they pursue sobriety, but state clearly that you will not protect them from the ramifications of their actions at work. If you are concerned that confronting your coworker, even with respect, will be offensive or confrontational, it is best to speak to a supervisor or human resources employee. Regardless of whether you speak to the individual first, an employee drinking at work should be reported. HR staff are aware of both employee rights and alcohol in the workplace laws and can act accordingly.

What are the Signs of an Alcoholic at Work?

Look out for these warning signs when determining if an employee is drinking alcohol on the job:

  • lack of coordination
  • bloodshot eyes
  • slurred speech 
  • poor work performance 
  • nausea 
  • frequent absences 
  • irritability 
  • lack of self-care 

These individuals may make poor decisions and display slow reaction time, which can result in injury and insufficient outcomes.

Disadvantages of Drinking at Work

There are serious disadvantages to drinking on the job, making it imperative to take such a situation seriously. Aside from obvious risks, such as injury and death, other disadvantages of workplace alcohol abuse include health complications, loss of income, and loss of future hireability.

These risks do not begin and end with the individual drinking on the job, but affect coworkers as well. On-the-job injuries are a real threat for those working alongside an intoxicated coworker, and the mental toll can be significant. This is aside from the strain of bearing the burden of incomplete or inaccurate work thanks to peers lagging behind due to alcohol abuse.

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Which Professions are Most at Risk for Alcohol in the Workplace Problems?

Some employees are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder and bring it into the workplace. Bartenders are 2.33 times more likely to develop AUD and subsequently die from alcohol-related deaths. Roofers, painters, and other construction-related jobs are 1.87 to 1.72 times more likely to be affected by alcohol abuse.

High-stress jobs also place people at risk for developing alcohol dependence, including lawyers, doctors, and air traffic controllers. These are also careers where drinking at work can cause significant damage to oneself and others, beyond coworkers or businesses.

Remote workers and employees whose jobs require them to be isolated due to the nature of their work are at increased risk for alcohol abuse as well. They are not only alone – which can lead to depression and alcohol abuse – but they also may lack accountability for their drinking on the job.

Some worksites and careers have a culture or subculture of alcohol use, where alcohol consumption at work is a norm and accountability for responsible drinking is low. These workplaces range from bartenders to executives discussing business over drinks.

What is the Cost of Employees Drinking on the Job?

Alcoholism in the workplace has a financial impact as well, mostly due to accidents, lost productivity, and the need to recruit and train new personnel. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [2], excessive alcohol use costs the American economy approximately $179 billion dollars annually, due to the loss of productivity in the workforce. The damage from reduced workforce productivity far exceeds other economic factors, such as healthcare, collisions, and criminal justice losses.

The total cost of alcohol abuse in the workplace in individual companies is around $7,000 dollars a year for many of the same reasons. Alcoholics are 33 percent less productive due to their alcohol use. There are programs that can combat alcohol use in the workplace, and individuals diagnosed with AUD may qualify for assistance under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The most common exception made for alcoholics under the ADA is the ability to miss work for alcohol addiction-related treatment. However, even this necessary intervention will inevitably result in lost time and productivity for the company and added work for coworkers.

How Can Employers Prevent Drinking at Work?

A major way employers can address alcohol use both inside and outside of the workplace is by making alcohol abuse prevention part of their employee wellness program. Considering that most companies employ adults, the workplace is an excellent place to address alcohol abuse. By making this form of training available and in some cases mandatory, the employer may be able to indirectly address concerns for specific employees.

Employers are advised to implement an alcohol-at-work policy. Depending on the company, employers may wish to enforce a total drug and alcohol-free work environment. Some businesses may allow certain types of alcoholic beverages at specific times. Having a workplace alcohol policy in place is the first step in reducing alcohol consumption on the job, plus all of its associated issues.

What if You Are Accused of Drinking Alcohol at Work?

If you are accused of drinking alcohol at work, use this as an opportunity to ask yourself some honest questions.

  1. Do you occasionally drink at work?
  2. Do you frequently drink on the job?
  3. Do you arrive at work suffering from a hangover from heavy drinking the night before?
  4. Do you feel that your alcohol consumption is spiraling out of control?

Recognizing that you need help is the first step on your road to recovery. Many companies are interested in supporting employees with alcohol problems. They recognize that alcohol use disorder affects millions of people, regardless of age, gender, race, and other factors. Most employers would rather see you receive proper medical alcohol detox treatment and attain sobriety than watch you lose your job due to alcoholism.

If you or a loved one is struggling with drinking at work or during leisure hours, reach out to Avenues Recovery and find the help you deserve. We offer a variety of treatment programs and will be with you every step of the way on your journey to recovery.




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