Spotting a Functional Alcoholic at Work 

Highfunctioning alcoholism is more common than you think. It occurs in workplaces worldwide. Learn more today and stay educated about recovery. 

Spotting a Functional Alcoholic at Work 

Highfunctioning alcoholism is more common than you think. It occurs in workplaces worldwide. Learn more today and stay educated about recovery. 

The information presented on this page is a general overview and is offered here as a comprehensive resource. At Ampelis Recovery, our programs are customized and tailored to the individual’s needs. Specific details below that cover treatment protocols may not reflect the protocols used for our clients.

If you would like to learn more about Ampelis Recovery and our customized programs for professional men, please do not hesitate to reach out.


What Does it Mean to be a Functional Alcoholic?

A functional alcoholic is a person that maintains a secret alcohol dependency. A highly functional alcoholic can have their alcohol dependence go unnoticed by family, friends, and coworkers. Because they are able to hide their dependency, it can take longer to receive help.

How is Functional Alcoholism Defined?

The definition of alcoholism is a woman having seven or more drinks per week and a man having fourteen or more drinks per week. Highly functional alcoholics fall into those parameters, but they can maintain their home and work life with little to no notice from those around them.

Is Functional Alcoholism a Medical Diagnosis?

Functional alcoholics are not medically diagnosed under this term. Instead, they fall under the diagnosis of someone suffering from alcoholism.

Doctors use a series of tests and questions to determine if a client suffers from alcohol dependency. These tests include a psychological examination, lab tests, and a physical exam. 1

Learn More About Healing the Brain

  • Holistic Approach
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Positive Psychology

How High-Achieving Functional Alcoholics Get Work Done

Alcohol tolerance increases in someone struggling with alcoholism.2 Consequently, high functional alcoholics steadily increase their alcohol intake over time, meaning one drink a day becomes two drinks a day, then three drinks, and so on. The combination of these two occurrences keeps their alcohol dependency outwardly manageable.

Our culture dictates that individuals struggling with alcoholism slur their words and have a hard time holding employment. However, high functioning alcoholics do not have these issues, and it is difficult to recognize their alcohol dependence.

Eventually, highly functional alcoholism reaches a breaking point where the individual can no longer hide the effects of alcohol dependency. Alcohol dependency is an inherent recipe for disaster and, when left untreated, will invariably cause health complications.3

Most functional alcoholics are young adults.4 This factor could be linked to the increasingly detrimental effects of alcohol that occur as one ages.

Common Strategies of Functional Alcoholics at Work

Hiding an alcohol dependency is a full-time job in its own right. A high functioning alcoholic employs several methods to conceal their drinking problem, such as:

Claiming Alcohol Dependency to be an Illness

Symptoms of alcohol dependency such as irritability, daytime drowsiness, etc., overlap with illnesses such as the common cold, poor sleep, and more. A highly functional alcoholic may claim to be sick, stressed, or any other condition to explain their symptoms and cover their tracks.

Mixing Drinks

A high-functioning alcoholic may mix their alcohol of choice into soda, coffee, and other non-alcoholic beverages so they can drink freely.


A functional alcoholic may hide in their office or away from others to cover their symptoms. Hides can include becoming unreachable or frequently calling in sick.

Someone with functional alcoholism may also drink alone in their car to give them time and privacy and allow them to hide the smell of alcohol.

Signs of a Functional Alcoholic in the Office

There is no single way of spotting someone in the office who may be struggling with functional alcoholism. However, several signs may point to alcohol dependency.


An individual’s behavior is one of the most noticeable changes caused by alcohol dependency. High-functioning alcoholism causes irritability, tardiness, and depression. If a person already exhibits these traits, then alcohol dependency would intensify the effects.

Quality of Work

Over time, someone with functional alcoholism’s quality of work begins to suffer. As dependency progresses, work becomes less of a priority. A highly functional alcoholic may be able to hide their decreased work ethic longer in certain career fields.


Alcohol causes weakened muscles, weight gain, pale or patchy skin, thinning hair, and more. All these factors become noticeable over time.

Combining behavior, quality of work, and physical changes helps to recognize the overall picture of alcohol dependency.

Signs of a Functional Alcoholic in Personal Life

Several aspects outside of the office can also indicate if someone is struggling with functional alcoholism.


A functional alcoholic will begin to flake on social engagements or insert drinking into non-alcohol-related events. They may encourage alcohol with breakfast or find a cause to celebrate and therefore drink. Some functional alcoholics may be entirely withdrawn outside of work and prefer to drink alone. All these changes occur alongside irritability, depression, and mood swings.

Failing Responsibilities

A functional alcoholic prioritizes alcohol over almost everything else. This prioritization causes them to miss out on social events, accumulate unpaid bills, and fail to plan for the future. Additionally, it can negatively impact their relationships with partners and children.


A person suffering from alcohol dependency experiences lower energy levels, poor blood flow, and weight gain. These physical factors can negatively affect interpersonal relationships. More extreme, long-term physical changes include poor coordination and clumsiness.

Who is Most Likely to be a Functional Alcoholic?

Young adults are the most likely to become functional alcoholics. They make up approximately 32% of alcoholics in the U.S.4


  • White males are 6% more likely to develop alcoholism.
  • Approximately 7.6% of people experiencing regular depression develop alcohol dependency.
  • Adults with no primary care physician are more likely to suffer from alcohol dependency.
  • At 2%, Asian-Americans are the least likely to experience alcohol dependency.

Risk Factors

Several factors are contributing to alcoholism, with the most common including:

Family History

Some people are born with a genetic disposition to alcohol dependency. A person with a family history of alcoholism is four times more likely to suffer from alcohol dependency even if a parent without alcohol dependency raises them.5

Approximately 60% of the risk of developing alcohol dependency is related to genetics. Having genes predisposed to alcohol dependency negatively impacts the executive brain function of a child, meaning the child may have a hard time applying logic to everyday problems. In the case of alcohol dependency, impaired executive functions make it difficult to fully consider the adverse effects of alcohol.5


One’s environment can lead to alcoholism through early alcohol exposure, encouraged drinking habits, or various forms of abuse. Poor areas experience an increased level of alcohol dependency.6

Mental Illness

Studies show that individuals with mental illnesses are at a greater risk of alcoholism and substance abuse.

Am I a Functional Alcoholic?

Functional alcoholism does not happen overnight. Many of the signs can go unnoticed both in the functional alcoholic and those around them. In environments with a drinking culture, many of the red flags are considered positives.

What Signs Should I Look For?

  • Cravings: Cravings are a sign that dependency has or will set in. They can manifest as drinking daily to take the edge off or drinking as early as possible.
  • Hiding Alcohol: Stashing away empty alcohol containers, drinking in secret, and keeping alcohol in your car or on your person are signs of a burgeoning drinking problem.
  • Drunk Driving: Drunk driving is a risk whether or not you make it home safe. If you find yourself driving intoxicated, then it is time to seek treatment. DUI’s can cost you money, careers, and your home life. Do not take the chance.
  • Trying to Feel Normal: If you do not feel “normal” until you are drinking or need alcohol to have fun, you are at risk of dependency. If you find yourself drinking to feel, forget, or ignore, therapy is a better option than drinking.

How Do I Get Help for Functional Alcoholism?

Seeking help is the first step towards recovery. There are several programs set up to overcome a drinking problem, and finding the one that is right for you is critical.

Addiction Treatment

Addiction treatment can include inpatient or outpatient programs. Addiction treatment helps lessen the effects of alcohol withdrawal. Addiction treatment provides vital monitoring, medication for co-occurring illnesses, and a safe space to recover.


Therapy helps create healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with addiction triggers. Therapy can also treat depression, anxiety, and several mental illnesses. Overcoming dependency requires a mental shift and a lifestyle change. Therapy reinforces positive traits and spurs the change needed to live a sober life.

If you or a loved one are showing signs of alcoholism, seek help. Alcoholism cannot be beaten alone. In rehab, you will learn to spot the signs of alcoholism and gain the tools needed to thrive in sobriety. Even a highly functional alcoholic has limits, so find help before you reach your limit.