How to spot – and help – a high-functioning alcoholic in your organisation

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

Sobriety companion and coach, Dr Bunmi Aboaba, draws on her experiences to explain what to look for and what action you should take:

Firstly, there are some simple signs to look for: 

  1. Physical appearance, look out for sallow skin, bloodshot eyes, profuse sweating, tremors, unexplained bruising, slurred speech and rapid weight gain or loss.
  2. 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.
  3. Lacking concentration and / or being easily confused. Alcohol causes sleep disturbances, so it affects day-to-day concentration, energy levels and productivity.
  4. Joking about drinking: Making jokes like $B!H(Brehab is for quitters$B!I(B or $B!H(Bwe can$B!G(Bt let these drinks go to waste, it’s criminal$B!I(B could be a sign that they are deep in denial.
  5. Secretive behaviour, if they$B!G(Bre using mouthwash, mints, breath spray, perfume, aftershave, etc., when it’s something they wouldn’t normally do, this could be a red flag.
  6. Behavioural changes: mood swings, being defensive, starting arguments, talking too quickly or slowly, no volume control or staying silent for long periods.
  7. 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.

However, it$B!G(Bs important to mention that drinking problems appear on a wide spectrum, from binging to dependency, so not all of the following signs may apply to everyone. Also, 50% of high-functioning alcoholics won$B!G(Bt 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. Other signs:

  1. Drink more than everyone else at a work event, but may drink excessively before or after… or even in the toilets during proceedings
  2. High tolerance to alcohol (keeps on drinking at events and rarely appears drunk)
  3. Fits right into the existing drinking culture at the firm (if applicable)
  4. Will always finish a drink; will never waste a drop.
  5. Easily compartmentalizes work, play and personal life
  6. Overachieving at work to use this as proof that there isn’t a problem
  7. Has tried to quit alcohol in the past

What can you do to help?

It is essential to be careful about how you approach someone you suspect to have a drinking problem. It$B!G(Bs 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:

  • Prohibit the use of alcohol in the office
  • Prohibit the giving of alcohol as gifts for birthdays, etc.
  • Ensure most of the firm$B!G(Bs events (meetings, parties) are non-alcoholic
  • Incorporate team activities such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, etc.
  • If an employee has already received rehab treatment, ensure you have a proper back-to-work plan in place.
  • Hold a seminar hosted by an addictions expert to do a talk on the signs that someone could have a problem with alcohol

Sometimes you$B!G(Bll need to get directly involved in helping an employee. How can you approach an employee about their drinking problem?

  • Empathise: Demonstrate that you know alcohol issues are an illness and they can be treated
  • Prepare for denial: The chances are they are in denial and might be defensive
  • Make it private: In a secure, safe space away from others
  • Be factual: Name times and dates where possible without being accusatory.
  • Show the consequences: Demonstrate how their behaviour has affected their work
  • 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 counsellors 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.

If do you think one of your employees or colleagues might have a drinking problem, don$B!G(Bt ignore it! You could just provide the starting point they need for their new, sober lifestyle.


Dr Bunmi Aboaba a Sobriety Companion and Coach and founder of the Sober Advantage. Bunmi 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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