The Fallacy of the High-Functioning Alcoholic

Posted on October 18th, 2013

The Fallacy of the High-Functioning AlcoholicTwenty percent of alcoholics could be labeled high-functioning alcoholics, according to a recent article on alcoholism. What exactly is a high-functioning alcoholic? What separates this 20 percent of drinkers from the rest of the alcoholic demographic? Can an alcoholic ever really be classified as high-functioning?

The high-functioning alcoholic is the alcoholic who doesn’t look like one. These men and women aren’t bums. They aren’t panhandling for money to get their daily fix or locked up in their darkened dens drinking the day away. They’re clean cut, dressed in suits, sitting in corner offices and generally filling the office buildings of our country. They drive sporty cars, live in nice houses, have spouses and children and hold positions of esteem within their companies and communities.

But they are addicted to alcohol, many of them physically dependent. Despite an ongoing addiction, they maintain the image of the well-rounded, and even healthy, employee. While some drink during the day, many embrace the afterhours as the time to let loose and feed their craving.

What distinguishes the high-functioning alcoholic is essentially the ability to keep going, keep working, keep maintaining the façade, and even to keep achieving professional success, despite a daily relationship with large quantities of alcohol. Despite the outward appearance of functionality, however, alcoholism never fails to take its toll.

While alcoholism will exist across all spheres of life, alcoholism within the higher socioeconomic classes and professional echelons is, in large measure, due to the high pressure environment of the corporate world with its never ending competition and push to do more, sell more, make more, or be left behind. Other high stress, high demand fields such as medicine also see a significant number of alcoholics who are continuing to function in their careers. And in many industries, excessive drinking is not only accepted, it is encouraged. This serves to solidify the attitude that drinking is the proper reward for hard work and can even help to fuel that work.

Many are highly intelligent achievers given to anxiety and, at least for a while, the alcohol works in their favor, allowing them to push through the stress in order to work harder. But this approach to dealing with professional pressure has a fatal flaw. Initially, and even for many years, alcohol appears to mitigate stress. Simultaneously, however, it is making the drinker less resistant to stress and less able to withstand pressure. Over time, the alcoholic’s ability to cope decreases and more alcohol is required, setting up a destructive cycle of ever-increasing stress and an ever-increasing need for more and more alcohol.

But is it really a problem? If employees are accomplishing their work, does it matter what they do or how much they drink in the off hours? While a workplace wouldn’t be able to control an employee’s off-hours behavior, there is indeed a problem with employee alcoholism, even high-functioning alcoholism. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. Heavy drinking only gets heavier. Though an employee may be performing adequately at the moment, at some point the disease will take over and usurp that performance.

High-functioning alcoholics often persist longer in denial of their condition due to the visible success of their lives. Everything appears to be going so well—how could there be a problem? They don’t match their own mental picture of a drunk.

However, while drinkers may feel that because they are getting their work done, their alcoholism is no cause for concern, they are mistaken. While many alcoholics appear to be keeping up their performance at work, the statistics paint a different picture.

Studies from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence suggest that the cost of alcoholism in the workplace ranges from $33 billion to $68 billion per year. These drinkers also represent a liability for the organization. How does it reflect on the company if this employee attends a trade show or hosts clients for dinner and drinks excessively and irresponsibly?

As glamorous and seemingly innocuous as the daily drinking culture portrayed on TV shows like “Mad Men” may appear, alcoholism and professional performance do not mix. Each year companies lose billions of dollars due to the under-productivity, absenteeism and unpredictable and erratic patterns of so-called high-functioning workplace alcoholics.

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