Identifying and helping a high-functioning alcoholic in your business

March 5, 2018

For most people, their idea of an alcoholic is someone who drinks far too much and whose life is falling apart at the seams.


However, some people with an alcohol use disorder may seem just fine, even though they are abusing alcohol. They still have great profession, car, house, beautiful family and great relationships in and out of work.

These individuals are defined as high-functioning alcoholics. If they are drinking at least three to four drinks per day they are at risk.

Regardless of how well they are presenting themselves on the outside, no one can drink heavily and maintain major responsibilities over long periods of time. It will catch up at some stage and bite hard.

It could be making mistakes at work, bad decisions leading to financial losses for the business, not representing a client properly or losing clients. It’s also possible that their relationships and home will deteriorate.

When recovered functioning alcoholics look back in their lives they have pinpointed major errors at work that could have been avoided if they had been sober.

So how can you tell if a member of your team is a high-functioning alcoholic? And, once identified, what can you do to help them?


Spot the signs
  1. Changes in routine, such as frequently turning up late, leaving early, taking longer lunch breaks, disappearing for lengths of time and spending more time working alone.
  1. Physical appearance, watch out for sallow skin, bloodshot eyes, profuse sweating, tremors, unexplained bruising, slurred speech and rapid weight gain or loss.
  1. Secretive behaviour, if they’re using mouthwash, breath mints, breath spray, perfume, aftershave, etc., when it’s something they wouldn’t normally do, this could be a red flag. 
  1. Behavioural changes: mood swings, being defensive, starting arguments, talking too quickly or slowly, no volume control or staying silent for long periods. 
  1. Strained relationships, which could be caused by failing to commit to attending meetings, being late for important appointments, forgetting to complete tasks and missing deadlines. 
  1. Lacking concentration, or being easily confused. Alcohol causes sleep disturbances, so it affects day-to-day concentration, energy levels and productivity.
  1. Joking about drinking: Making jokes like “rehab is for quitters” or “we can’t let these drinks go to waste, it’s criminal” could be a sign that they are deep in denial.


It’s important to mention that drinking problems appear on a wide spectrum, from binging to dependency, so not all of the following signs may apply to everyone. Also, 50% of high-functioning alcoholics won’t show ANY of the above-mentioned signs.

So how can you identify the secret 50%?

You may have to dig a little deeper and pay even closer attention. Look out for:


  • High tolerance to alcohol (keeps on drinking at events and rarely appears ‘drunk’)
  • Overachieving at work to use this as a ‘convincer’ that there isn’t a problem
  • Easily compartmentalizes work, play and personal life
  • Won’t drink more than everyone else at a work party, but may drink excessively before or after…or even in the toilets during the party
  • Has tried to quit alcohol in the past, but masquerades it as ‘for charity’ or as part of ‘Dry January.’
  • Fits right into the existing drinking culture at the firm (if applicable)
  • Will always finish a drink; will never waste a drop.


How to help an employee get sober

It’s essential to be very careful about how you approach someone you suspect to have a drinking problem. It’s a sensitive issue and needs to be addressed with sincerity.

The first step to helping them is indirectly. This largely includes cultivating a positive, healthy culture in your workplace:


  • Hold a seminar hosted by an addictions expert to do a talk on the signs that someone could have a problem with alcohol
  • Ensure most of the firm’s events (meetings, parties) are non-alcoholic
  • Prohibit the use of alcohol in the office
  • Prohibit the giving of alcohol as gifts for birthdays, etc.
  • Incorporate team activities such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, etc.
  • Enforce a strict “no contact except in dire emergencies” policy when an employee takes time off
  • If an employee has already received rehab treatment, ensure you have a proper back-to-work plan in place.


Sometimes you’ll need to get directly involved in helping an employee. How can you approach an employee about their drinking problem?


  • Make it private: In a secure, safe space away from others
  • Prepare for denial: The chances are they are in denial and might be defensive
  • The nurturing approach: Emphasise that they’re not in trouble – you’re simply concerned
  • Be factual: Name times and dates where possible without being accusatory.
  • Show the consequences: Demonstrate how their behaviour has affected their work
  • Empathise: Demonstrate that you know alcohol issues are an illness and they can be treated
  • Recommend: Suggest your employee makes an appointment with their GP and provide them with contact details for people who can help them, such as addiction counselors or Sober Coaches
  • Accommodate: Make time for them during working hours to go to any necessary appointments, support groups or therapies.
  • Cover them financially: Offer to pay for therapy, counselling, etc. You’re investing in your employee’s wellbeing after all.


Don’t ignore it if you think one of your employees or colleagues might have a drinking problem. You could be the starting point for their new, sober lifestyle.


About the author

Bunmi AboabaDr Bunmi Aboaba a Sobriety Companion and Coach and founder of the Sober Advantage. She is dedicated to helping professionals overcome drinking problems. Her combination of holistic therapies is used to prepare a bespoke plan designed to fit around busy schedules. Bunmi helps people battling a variety of addictions to get control of their lives and beat their addiction – for good. Bunmi uses a variety of techniques to help her clients, all of which she has used herself to help her gain her sobriety and remain sober for 10 years. See: and

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