How to Recognize a Functioning Alcoholic At Work

In episodes of “Mad Men,” it’s not uncommon to find Don Draper and his colleagues huddling in the office and drinking alcohol. Boozing and schmoozing on the job was once a staple of white collar America and offering a drink to visiting clients was a part of doing business.

While the days of having a bar in the office or bottle in the file drawer may no longer be acceptable in the modern office, drinking with work colleagues, clients and customers continues as a primary form of socializing.

Alcohol is also the most used and abused substance in America.  And high-functioning alcoholics, a phrase many fans attributed to Don Draper as his life spiraled out of control, continue to be part of the American workplace.

The most recent report from National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that 8.7% of full-time workers aged 18 to 64 used alcohol heavily and that 9.5% were dependent on or abused alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year.

A functional alcoholic can still operate in the work world, and may hide his or her drinking problem or live in denial of their disease, but there are certain telltale behaviors that co-workers may notice.

  • Drinking whenever given the chance. At office parties and social outings with work friends and clients, they cannot say no to a drink and will consume alcohol long after everyone has had enough. They may set limits and then make an excuse like, “just one more for the road.” This can cause others to worry and take on undue responsibilities. One man went out with his boss for a business meeting and the boss became so inebriated that his subordinate had to accompany him home in a cab.
  • Being like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Alcohol is known to alter the way people communicate or present themselves. A functioning alcoholic may be the kindest co-worker or boss but after a few drinks there is a noticeable change in behavior. Perhaps they become flirtatious or mean-spirited. Maybe they seem withdraw and non-communicable. They may even give you a dirty look for no reason. The behavior can be off-putting and confusing.
  • Not remembering words and actions. Alcohol is known to cloud memories and can also cause blackouts. Because of the inability to stop drinking, certain business agreements or conversations may be lost in the clouded memories of any event that includes alcohol. If someone you work with falls down, goes on a rant about work or even promises you a promotion or raise, they may not recollect a thing. This will happen increasingly as the disease progresses. 
  • Messing up on responsibilities. While they do as much as they can to make it seem they are doing their job well, functioning alcoholics are bound to fall short in certain areas. Eventually small lapses and mistakes become part of the norm. In one case, a manager forgot to tell an employee in advance that her entire team was transferred to another project, leaving her flabbergasted when the new business structure was revealed in a meeting. In other cases, co-workers may notice forgetfulness on important issues, sloppy work or missed deadlines, and faulty or incomplete analysis. Any mess-ups are met with host of excuses.
  • Unexplained absences and daytime disappearances. It’s not unusual for alcoholics to miss work, be late for meetings, or have a lot of sick days. You many also hear frequently about multiple family “emergencies.” Sometimes a partner or relative will call and make excuses for them.  But since functional alcoholics attempt to hold their work lives together, they may disappear unexpectedly after important meetings or leave early to go to a bar to drink before anyone else gets there. It makes co-workers speculate about where their colleague is and angry that they cannot depend on that person.
  • Personal instability. Some functional alcoholics keep alcohol out of the workplace all together and just drink at night and on weekends. They may get their job done, and do it well, but at some point the drinking catches up. Their personal lives are often the first to fall apart, as they begin coming home late from work after drinks or missing family functions and responsibilities. They isolate, preferring to drink alone. Eventually this spills into their work life. Hangovers may make the mornings difficult and the overall effect of alcohol use will impair cognitive function.
  • Creating distance from work friends. It’s a given that relationships with co-workers can become strained the more a colleague lets them down or even gets them in hot water at work. But relationships that were once fun or helpful can also go sour. This may happen because the functioning alcoholic becomes belligerent, argumentative, or short-tempered. It could be because they’ve begun to isolate and become a loner.
  • Grumpy with a negative attitude. A functioning alcoholic may develop a very bad attitude during the times at work they cannot drink. The body and brain are dependent on the substance and not having a drink can set up unhappy behaviors and hostility. This can cause co-workers to walk on eggshells around the person, or avoid them completely for fear of having their heads bit off.

Not all of these signs prove that the person you work with is a functional alcoholic. But if you look closely at behavior and alcohol consumption among your colleagues and find that they exhibit several of these signs, it may be time reach out to your HR department for help.


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