How To Know When Drinking Is Affecting You at Work

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We’ve all been there—waking up feeling behind the eight ball and struggling to catch up all day. Nobody is one hundred percent on-point 24/7. But one thing nobody wants to feel is that they are slipping at work due to drinking. 

However, this happens to many people at one point or another, and it can be insidious. After all, our lives outside of work matter too. And as long as we keep within healthy limits, having a social life or taking time to relax in the evening generally benefits our careers. So, how do you know if you are crossing the line?

Sometimes, terms like “alcoholic” or even “alcohol use disorder” can be misleading, especially because of the stigma attached to them. What really matters are the real-world impacts, and the choices that help you live and work your best. So, is your drinking problematic where work is concerned? Here are some warning signs drinking might be affecting how you do your job: 

1. Fatigue

Fatigue and alcohol consumption are common partners in crime. Fatigue can result from being out too late drinking, and also from alcohol-related insomnia or hangover symptoms. It can make the workday seem almost impossible, as you lack the energy and focus to accomplish the simplest of tasks. 

woman at a desk massaging her temples and feeling fatigued
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels

According to an article in Harvard Health, “alcohol’s sedative quality can rob you of energy … Drinking wine, beer, or hard liquor during the day can make you feel drowsy or lethargic. If you didn’t sleep well the night before, even one drink can make you drowsy, especially if you drink during one of your usual low-energy times.”1

2. Mental Performance/Cognition

As with fatigue, reduced mental performance can be a result of excessive drinking. The “brain fog” that accompanies hangovers and alcohol-related insomnia can be a breeding ground for errors on the job. 

If you are not mentally alert and thinking clearly, it is easy to make poor decisions. This can be particularly dangerous if you work in an occupation that involves difficult physical tasks and attention to safety.

In addition to any short-term consequences of drinking, some studies point to long-term cognitive damage as a result of heavy and sustained alcohol use. An article in Practical Neurology states, “heavy drinking is detrimental to brain function, with effects ranging from impairment of memory (encoding and retrieval), executive function, and global cognition, to an increased risk of dementia.” The article did offer some good news—that abstinence could repair the damage over a period of 3-12 months.2

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3. Lateness

Ever sneak into work really late hoping no one notices? Another sign that drinking is problematic is tardiness. When you are hungover, you may have trouble responding to the alarm or getting ready in a timely manner. This can be a significant issue in many workplaces. 

Co-workers and supervisors notice who arrives on time in the morning and after lunch and breaks. Showing up late is a poor reflection of your work ethic, especially if there is a pattern. Repeated tardiness may lead to getting passed up for promotions and even result in getting fired.

4. Anxiety

The last thing any of us want is more anxiety at work. We typically have more than our fair share from long to-do lists and short deadlines. 

Alcohol can exacerbate anxiety in a couple of ways. First, there is hangover-related anxiety—also known as hangxiety. This is defined as “symptoms of anxiety that follow a night of excessive alcohol consumption, often linked to hangovers.” When in this state, you can experience a sense of dread over what you may have said or done while you were drinking—worried that you may have embarrassed yourself or offended others.

In addition, alcohol can affect your brain chemistry, increasing anxiety overall—not just during a hangover. If you’ve been drinking heavily, it is a good idea to take a look at your overall mental health at work, and the possibility that alcohol is contributing to any negative symptoms.

5. Stress Levels

Perhaps you feel that a quick drink at lunch can take the edge off the rest of the day. But the truth is, stress and alcohol have a chicken-and-egg relationship. On the one hand, you may find alcohol helps reduce your stress when you get home from work. But in the big picture, an excess of alcohol actually makes you more susceptible to stress. 

woman with her head down at a desk feeling overwhelmed
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

Part of the issue lies with alcohol’s relationship to the stress hormone cortisol. While there is some evidence that alcohol can actually reduce your cortisol response in stressful situations, it also appears to make those stress responses last longer.3 Cortisol may even bias your system towards developing a drinking habit.4 In other words, drinking to unwind every once in a while may be fine, but doing it on a regular basis is counterproductive.

6. Calling Out Sick

It’s not just hangovers we’re talking about: Alcohol can undermine your immune system. Drink enough, often enough, and your chances of catching whatever bug is going around increase. Not to mention your risk for alcohol-related accidents and injuries.

As an article in Alcohol Research notes, “clinicians have long observed an association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects such as susceptibility to pneumonia.” The article also cites several other health problems which can result from excessive drinking—binge drinking included.5 

Finding the Right Balance

It is important to recognize that mild alcohol consumption has some career-related advantages. For example, it can be an important part of networking (in moderation). A glass of wine can also serve as a way to unwind after a stressful workday. We’re all adults: If you want to drink sometimes in your spare time, and you stick to healthy limits, that’s entirely your choice.

But there is a threshold past which drinking becomes unhealthy, and that line is a notoriously blurry one. The stigma around alcohol use disorder makes this even worse: People feel under pressure to see themselves as “addicted” before they are willing to consider if their drinking could be causing problems.

The truth is; you don’t need to be an “alcoholic” to reflect on your drinking. It is important to ask yourself: How is my drinking affecting my work and my long-term goals? What does an ideal balance look like for me? It’s a subjective call, but it’s never a bad idea to give it some thought.

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Written By:
Lisa Keeley
Lisa Keeley is a freelance writer who resides in upstate New York. She especially enjoys writing about health, wellness and living your best life.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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