Understanding the High Functioning Alcoholic Executive

It’s not easy to make sense of the high-functioning alcoholic (HFA), but there are more of them than we think. People earning more than $75,000 per year drink more alcohol than any other economic group. About 81 percent of these high earners consume alcohol on, at least, a semi-regular basis. While the majority of them drink in moderation, far too many fall victim to the disease of addiction.

Understanding How an HFA Executive Hides Their Alcoholism

High-functioning alcoholics are found in all walks of life and at all income levels. However, high-functioning alcoholic executives may be particularly vulnerable. Due to their position, these “high-functioning” alcoholic executives are able to shield their descent into madness behind walls of denial and obfuscation for a longer period of time.


Even when things do start to fall apart (and they do), executives hide their drinking more easily than those with less authority. Executives are like islands in the workplace. They seldom have to worry about superiors checking up on them or looking over their shoulder. Even when the long nights and lost weekends start to catch up with them, addicted executives are usually able to escape detection for a time. They rely on their reputation and status to cover for their increasing inability to perform.

Alcoholic executives may use their position and privileges to keep the denial train running past the point of no return. When they do finally plunge off the cliff, the tumble is often long and hard. It may end in disgrace, embarrassment, job loss or arrest for driving under the influence (DUI). Their fall from grace becomes public knowledge, and the whispers and finger-pointing all but impossible to escape.

Is Stress the Key to Understanding the High Functioning Alcoholic?

There’s no clear answer as to what drives some executives and big-money achievers into alcoholism. Autobiographical tales of woe often blame it on the stress and pressure that go with a stint in management at a large business. Some psychologists and psychiatrists that cater to this crowd accept this explanation. In fact, the idea has been repeated often enough to acquire the veneer of established truth.


However, this simplistic view might not be helpful to truly understanding the high functioning alcoholic executive. Despite its logical underpinnings, this explanation rings shallow. The assertion that successful people face more stress than those with less authority is questionable. Lower-income individuals face grave real-world challenges that dwarf anything experienced by executives in the workplace. Problems with substance abuse are connected to a wide variety of events and difficult circumstances. Elevating some of them to a special “executive” status feels unjustifiable.

Emptiness Drives Success and Addiction

This isn’t to suggest that high stress on the job plays no role in alcoholism among executives. But substance abuse often masks deeper emotional troubles and psychological maladjustment. People turn to drugs or alcohol to cover enduring, unresolved pain. That pain can also create an obsessive need for material success, fame and recognition. Men and women driven to succeed in the workplace may be haunted by the past. They may rely on career achievements to compensate for hurts that refuse to heal.

Some executives self-medicate their masked low self-esteem and feelings of failure with alcohol. The instinct to hide may make it difficult for executives to admit that their drinking is getting out of control. They cannot handle the embarrassment such honesty would cause.


There’s another side to understanding a high-functioning alcoholic. Many successful people feel like frauds. They may feel if others only knew the truth, the people who admire and respect them would reject them. The burden these men and women carry is immense. It goes beyond any job-related stress or anxiety they might experience. That stress and anxiety might be real, but it doesn’t cause their lack of self-belief any more than it causes their alcoholism.

Today’s High-Functioning Alcoholic Is Tomorrow’s Casualty of Addiction

Addiction is a complex, multilayered phenomenon. Executives who lose control of their drinking often refuse to consider treatment until they hit rock bottom. That’s ironic, because it’s their fear of failure that prevents them from asking for help in the first place.


Treatment can make the difference for these troubled men and women. They are high functioning on the outside but secretly dying on the inside. If they can’t face reality on their own — and tragically, many can’t — their best hope is that the people who love them will intervene. The sooner that happens, the better their chances of recovery will be.

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