Is a member of your team a high-functioning alcoholic? How would you tell? And once identified, what can you do to help them?

It is estimated there are over half a million ‘dependent drinkers' in the UK ( with many holding down skilled and often highly stressful jobs.

So, what is a high-functioning alcoholic? These are individuals that function effectively and lead a relatively normal life. They are professional with, at times, highly stressful careers, may also have a family - all the while hiding their addiction.

Just because they are high-functioning alcoholics doesn't mean that they are not at risk of hurting themselves or others as a result of their drinking. It is, therefore, important to help them realise the extent of their drinking and seek help to address the problem.

Signs someone may be a high-functioning alcoholic

It's important to mention that drinking problems appear on a very wide spectrum, from binge drinking to alcohol dependency, so not all of the following signs may apply to everyone:

Changes in routine

A change in their normal working patterns could signify the makings of a high-functional alcoholic. Signs include frequently turning up to work late, leaving the office early, taking longer lunch breaks, disappearing for lengths of time and spending more time working alone.

Physical appearance

It's true, alcohol can change someone's appearance - especially if they're drinking on a regular basis. Things to watch out for include sallow skin, bloodshot eyes, profuse sweating, tremors, unexplained bruising, slurred speech and rapid weight gain or loss, as well as other withdrawal symptoms.

Secretive behaviour

This is where an employee / colleague is covering up a drinking problem through use of mouthwash, breath mints, breath spray, perfume, aftershave, etc. If you notice someone who keep ‘covering up' then this could be a sign they're concealing a drinking problem. However, this is difficult as so many people use mouthwash, mints and so on, but if it's something they wouldn't normally do then this could be a red flag.

Another major red flag is when drinking is consistently done alone. Then it is difficult to limit one's drinking.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes you."

Behavioural changes

This could be mood swings, or being overly defensive, starting unnecessary arguments, talking too quickly or slowly, no volume control or even staying silent for long periods of time.

Strained relationships

Behavioural changes can lead to strained relationships with colleagues, other partners, senior management and even clients. This could also be caused by failing to commit to attending meetings, being late for important appointments, forgetting to complete tasks and missing deadlines.
Lacking concentration

If someone has lost focus and becomes easily confused, then this could be an indicator they're struggling with a drinking problem. Alcohol causes major disturbances in sleep, so it affects day-to-day concentration, energy levels and productivity.

They joke about their drinking.

They often make light on the subject of how much they drink. Making jokes like "rehab is for quitters" or "we can't let these drinks go to waste, it's criminal" and laugh about it. In reality they are deep in denial of their addiction.

BUT 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:

  1. High tolerance to alcohol (just keeps on drinking at events and rarely appears to be ‘drunk')
  2. Overachieving at work in order to use this as a ‘convincer' to show that there isn't an underlying problem
  3. Easily compartmentalizes work, play and personal life
  4. 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
  5. Has tried to quit alcohol in the past, but masquerades it as ‘for charity' or as part of ‘Dry January'.
  6. Fits right into the existing drinking culture at the firm (if applicable).
  7. Will always finish a drink, as in they will never waste a drop.

Obviously, it's essential to be very careful about how you approach someone you suspect to have a drinking problem. It's an incredibly sensitive issue and needs to be addressed with genuine sincerity.

How to help an employee get sober

Unless your employee is in an immediate crisis, 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. This can do a great job at starting a conversation throughout your firm, increasing awareness, increasing vigilance and helping people to address any potential problems.

●      Ensure the majority of the firm's events, meetings, parties and teambuilding days are non-alcoholic.

●      Prohibit the use of alcohol in the office.

●      Prohibit the giving of alcohol as gifts for birthdays, Christmas, weddings, etc.

●      Incorporate team activities such as yoga, wellness courses, meditation, mindfulness lessons, etc.

●      When your staff take holidays and their email is set to "Out of Office," make sure it means that. Enforce a strict "no contact except in dire emergencies" policy when an employee takes time off.

●      If an employee has already received rehab treatment for an alcohol problem then ensure you have a proper back-to-work plan in place.

But sometimes you'll need to get directly involved in helping an employee. So how can you approach an employee about their drinking problem?

●      Make it private: Set the scene in a secure, safe space away from the eyes and ears of your other employees.

●      Prepare for denial: The chances are, your employee, colleague, partner will be in denial and might be defensive.

●      The nurturing approach: Be sensitive when dealing with your employee and emphasize that they're not in trouble - you're simply worried about their wellbeing.

●      Be factual: Name times and dates where possible without being accusatory. For example, "I noticed you've been late to work five times this month and I could smell alcohol each time."

●      Never mention anyone else: It's absolutely essential that you avoid mentioning other employees; "Sarah told me she thought you were hungover." Keep all other colleagues out of this, otherwise it will sound gossipy and backstabbing. This can be very upsetting for your employee and could cause them to withdraw even more into drink.

●      Show the consequences: Demonstrate how their behaviour has affected their work, if appropriate.

●      Empathise: While you may not have a drinking problem, it's essential you demonstrate to your employee that you know alcohol issues are an illness and they can be treated.

●      Recommend: Suggest your employee makes an appointment with their GP to discuss any issues. Also, provide them with contact details for a variety of people who can help them, such as addiction counselors or Sober Coaches who can work with professionals who are time poor and can fit around their schedule and come to them.

●      Accommodate: Make time for them during working hours to go to any necessary appointments, support groups or therapies. Again, the assistance of a Sober Coach may be needed.

●      Cover them financially: Offer to pay for therapy, counselling or anything else they may need. After all, your investment in your employee's wellbeing is one of the most important.

If you think one of your employees or colleagues might have a drinking problem then don't ignore it. You could be the starting point for their new, sober lifestyle. Or maybe you've seen yourself in this article - either way it's so important that the right help is received.