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Why Deal With the Impact of Alcohol Use at Work?

Alcohol Use Is Harming Employees and Costing Workplaces Billions


How does alcohol use affect your workplace? Think that alcohol use is not a significant factor in your workplace? If so, think again. Alcohol use has a huge impact on workplace productivity, attendance, and employee turnover. Surprisingly, the workplaces most often affected by alcohol use are small- mid-sized employers, according to the Department of Labor.

"Smaller firms may be particularly disadvantaged by worker substance use and abuse. For example, while about half of all U.S. workers work for small and medium sized businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees), about nine in ten employed current illicit drug users and almost nine in ten employed heavy drinkers work for small and medium sized firms."

Yet, according to S.L. Larson, J. Eyerman, M.S. Foster, and J.C. Gfroerer in Worker Substance Use and Workplace Policies and Programs, these are the workplaces that are least likely to test for substance abuse, have an alcohol and drug use program in place, and may even attract workers with alcohol and substance abuse problems because of this.(1)

How Big Is the Alcohol Use Problem in the Workplace?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies, nearly 58 million people, 23.3% of the US population age 12 and up, participated in binge drinking (having five or more drinks on the same occasion at least once in the past 30 days). About 17 million people, 6.9% of the US population age 12 and up, reported heavy drinking (binge drinking on at least 5 of the past 30 days). (2)

The same study in 2007, estimated that 22.3 million people, 9% of US residents age 12 and up, were classified with substance dependence or abuse in the past year. Of these, 15.5 million abused or were dependent on alcohol, 3.7 million abused or were dependent on drugs, and 3.2 million abused or were dependent on both alcohol and illicit drugs.(3)

Among 55.3 million adult binge drinkers, 44.0 million, or 79.4% were employed. Of 16.4 million persons reporting heavy alcohol use, 13.1 million, 79.6% were employed.(4)

Of 20.4 million adults with substance dependence or abuse, 12.3 million or 60.4% were employed full-time.(5)

According to the US Department of Labor website, while the prevalence of substance use among employed people is lower than among the unemployed, a large number of employed people use drugs and alcohol. In 2007, 8.4% of those employed full-time were current illicit drug users. 8.8% reported heavy alcohol use. The industry groups with the highest rates of heavy alcohol use were construction, arts, entertainment and recreation, and mining. Workplaces with the lowest rates of alcohol use were health care and social assistance and educational services.

The Cost of Alcohol Use to Employers

About.com's Buddy T says: "costs can be measured in the expense of absenteeism, injuries, health insurance claims, loss of productivity, employee morale, theft and fatalities. According to NCADI statistics alcohol and drug users:

  • "Are far less productive.
  • "Use three times as many sick days.
  • "Are more likely to injure themselves or someone else.
  • "Are five times more likely to file worker's compensation claims."

Additionally, casual alcohol users are problematic. Hangovers, absenteeism, and tardiness cause lost productivity and potential safety issues for coworkers. In several other studies reviewed by Buddy T, the casual drinkers with hangovers caused more problems in workplaces than alcoholics. The annual cost of the impact of alcohol use in the US workplace is estimated at $148 billion in 2000.

The Signs of Alcohol Use in the Workplace

The front line supervisor or manager is an organization’s front line defense for recognizing alcohol use, referring employees who abuse alcohol for help, and addressing the effects of alcohol use in the workplace. Many symptoms of alcohol use are easy to spot; others may depend on the employee’s past patterns of behavior and interpersonal interactions over time - changing or deteriorating.

The supervisor and coworkers will be the first to notice these changes in the employee that may reflect current alcohol use or increasing or changing alcohol use. These suggestions are not comprehensive nor conclusive, but should be heeded.

  • Personal Appearance Changes: The employee comes to work dressed inappropriately, unkempt, wears wrinkled clothes, changes clothes irregularly, may emit an offensive odor, have offensive breath, and may have bloodshot eyes, an unsteady gait or exhibit general sleepiness.

  • Communication and Working With People Issues: The employee may speak with slurred speech. He or she may exhibit any number of poor interpersonal skills such as poor listening, easy to anger, conflict proneness, belligerency, uncooperativeness, easy to hurt and paranoid. The key is observing and listening to coworkers who may complain that the employee is slow, or hard to get along with, or changed. Diminishing interpersonal skills is a signal.

  • Work Output Problems: The employee may work more slowly and his or her output decreases. He or she may miss deadlines, make excuses for failed commitments, arrive late for work, miss days of work, extend weekends by missing Fridays or Mondays, disappear during the work day, fail to pull his or her fair share of the work load, never volunteer for overtime, and misses an increasing number of days for health related appointments. The employee cannot be counted on to keep deadline commitments or to do whatever is necessary to complete a job on time.

  • Work Judgment, Knowledge, and Execution Problems: The employee exhibits an increasing lack of judgment. He or she fails to understand and define assignments correctly, rarely follows through to check and measure results, can't handle complex assignments, delegates work inappropriately to others, and covers up the problem and issues related to the problem. Job skills that need development, failing to remember instructions and guidance, requiring supervision, and demonstrating that he or she is increasingly unable to work independently, are all potential symptoms of alcohol use.

How Can an Employer Combat Alcohol Use?

The employer is increasingly challenged to address employee substance abuse issues such as alcohol use in the workplace. Here are the steps that an employer must take to establish a drug and alcohol free workplace. You can diminish the effects of drug and alcohol use at work.


(1) Larson, S.L., Eyerman, J., Foster, M.S., and Gfroerer, J.C. (2007). Worker Substance Use and Workplace Policies and Programs (DHHS Publication No. SMA 07-4273, Analytic Series A-29). Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies.
(2)Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies (2008). Results from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (NSDUH Series H-34, DHHS Publication No. SMA 08-4343). Rockville, MD.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.

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