5 Signs a Coworker Has a Drinking Problem

Online alcohol sales and expenditures rose steeply during the pandemic, fueling record levels of consumption and driving rates of problem drinking way up. The trend is pervasive and could have long-term ripple effects. One news story in January 2022 mused that “the pandemic may have created a nation of problem drinkers.”

Because so many Americans have been working and drinking at home lately, problem drinking has also been easier to hide. But could that soon change? As more employees gradually return to the workplace—and as more companies like Microsoft and Amazon begin to insist on a return to the office or warehouse—more drinking problems may show up, too. If they do, it’s important to stage an intervention with help as soon as possible. (It may go without say that an unaddressed alcohol problem can compromise workplace safety, create on-the job issues and HR headaches, and/or spiral into full-blown alcoholism.)

How, though, do you spot an alcohol problem in the workplace? The question applies to every employee, whether you’re a manager, supervisor, administrative assistant, or warehouse worker. If you suspect a colleague has a drinking problem, look for these signs:

Regularly drinks at work and has more than one drink – For example, someone might regularly spike their morning coffee or order a drink at lunch. A thermos can also be a convenient way to drink without causing suspicion.

Shows up to work hungover – If your coworker comes into work exhibiting the classic signs of a hangover, such as fatigue, headache, nausea, achiness, anxiety, etc., this can also be an indication of a problem. If they come into work hungover more than once, that is a clear warning sign.

Talks a lot about getting drunk/hammered/plastered – Many people are “functional alcoholics,” insofar as they’ve managed to still do their job and maintain work-life responsibilities, despite an unhealthy level of alcohol consumption. They may not necessarily display symptoms of a hangover, but if they often mention going out with friends and getting drunk, and their vocabulary often involves alcohol, that can be a red flag.

Unexplainable mood changes and relationship issues – Sometimes a drinking problem can manifest as volatile or abrupt changes in mood. For example, after a holiday weekend or another night of heavy drinking, they may seem irritable or argumentative the next morning. It might seem like they’re on a short fuse or they may self-isolate as the office “loner.” Inevitably, there is a spillover effect from these issues. They can cause relationships with other colleagues or a supervisor to become tense and strained.

Frequent absences, showing up to work late, and/or changes in work attendance or performance – After a late night of binge drinking, it’s tempting to sleep in or call in sick. If this type of behavior happens more than once, it may point to an alcohol problem. Similarly, if a coworker used to be very productive but is now having trouble completing assignments or meeting deadlines, that change in performance is itself a potential sign of alcohol abuse.

Changes in hygiene and appearance – Like any other drug of abuse, alcohol can cause changes in one’s appearance if they’re a problem drinker. The smell of alcohol on a coworker’s breath—or mouthwash or breath mints to cover up the smell of alcohol—is an obvious sign, especially when you notice the smell repeatedly. Other signs: bloodshot eyes, unsteady gait, and tremors.

Problem drinking can occur anywhere, including on the job and in the workplace. Recognizing the signs is the first step to helping a coworker. Many people have found the support they need to seek alcohol detox and treatment and achieve long-term recovery, all thanks to a concerned colleague or supervisor.

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