Drinking at Work and Other Economic and Societal Effects of Alcohol

Last Updated: April 1, 2021

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

In the workplace, alcoholism and excessive drinking on the job are relatively common. In turn, drinking on the job can lead to a host of problems for the affected person, that person’s employer, and society as a whole. A range of telltale signs may indicate the presence of an alcohol-impaired co-worker or employee. Moreover, tens of thousands of lives are lost each year, and the country’s economic losses reach a total of hundreds of billions of dollars. Alcoholism also leads to several crimes each year, which individuals commit when they are intoxicated. There are ways in which these crimes could be prevented, and the problem of drinking at the workplace can be dealt with.

Find out the economic and sociological effects of alcohol, the prevalence of alcohol in the workplace, signs of drinking on the job, alcohol-related crimes, effects and consequences of alcohol abuse, and how to respond to these problems.

Economic Effects of Alcohol

The societal effects of alcohol and its abuse put a significant strain on the American economy. In fact, for every serving of beer, wine, or liquor consumed throughout the country, the estimated cost to society as a whole is slightly over $2.00. More than two-thirds of this economic damage comes from a practice called binge drinking. Roughly 17 percent of U.S. adults binge at least once in a given month.

The CDC Breaks the Economic Costs of Excessive Drinking Down Into Four Main Categories:

  • Healthcare
  • Lost workplace productivity
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Crime and the criminal justice system

CDC’s latest available figures indicate that the healthcare-related toll of alcohol use is approximately $28 billion a year. Lost workplace productivity accounts for the most significant loss at $179 billion a year. Motor vehicle accidents cost the country about $13 billion annually, while crime and the criminal justice system’s needs produce a burden of about $25 billion. These figures point to a total impact on society of roughly $249 billion a year.

How Drinking At Work Hits The Economy?

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that lost workplace productivity accounts for more than 70 percent of this tremendous social cost, with a price tag of roughly $179 billion annually because of drinking at work.

One of the main effects of alcohol in the workplace is an increased rate of absenteeism. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management estimates that people affected by alcoholism and its clinical abuse fail to show up for work roughly four to eight times more often than their counterparts without diagnosable drinking problems. Close relatives of people who have an issue of drinking at work also have a higher-than-average absenteeism rate.

Over the past several decades, numerous studies have pointed to the link between drinking at work and workplace injury. Compared to non-drinkers, people who drink may have as much as a 70 percent higher chance of being injured on the job. Even light drinking can lead to increased risk. However, the regular, excessive alcohol intake associated with diagnosable problems takes a much heavier toll. Almost certainly, workplace injuries help explain the nationwide costs of alcohol-related healthcare.

A worker in protective clothing and a flask with alcohol.

How Common Is Alcohol in the Workplace?

SAMHSA collects statistics on the use of alcohol in the workplace. This data includes information on heavy alcohol use for people who continue drinking at work. SAMHSA’s latest figures show that almost 9 percent of America’s full-time workers drink heavily on the job at least once a month. However, the rate of problem drinking at work varies significantly from industry to industry.

The Industries With the Highest Rates of Heavy-Drinking at work Employees Include:

  • Mining (17 percent affected)
  • Construction (16 percent affected)
  • Food services and accommodations (11.8 percent affected)
  • Entertainment, arts, and recreation (11.5 percent affected)

The industries with the lowest rates of alcohol in the workplace employees include:

  • Insurance and finance (7.4 percent affected)
  • Public administration (6.6 percent affected)
  • Educational services (4.7 percent affected)
  • Social assistance and healthcare (4.4 percent affected)

Alcohol use is in decline in some industries and on the increase in others.

Signs of Alcoholism at Work

No one can tell for sure from mere observation if a co-worker or employee is suffering from alcoholism or if he is drinking on the job. However, there is a range of potential signs to see if someone is drinking at work or even if they just drink a beer before work.

Drinking at Work Signs Fall into Four Main Categories:

  • Workplace behavior
  • Job performance
  • Job attendance
  • Workplace relationships

The list of possible behaviors of people who consume alcohol or drink a beer before work, as highlighted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, include:

  • Smelling like booze
  • Walking with an unsteady gait
  • Unexplained changes in mood/behavior
  • Having bloodshot eyes
  • Sleeping while at work
  • Repeatedly using mints or mouthwash
  • Avoiding supervisors

Potential performance-related indicators include things such as:

  • Failing to meet established production quotas
  • Missing assignment deadlines
  • Making faulty assessments of workplace problems
  • An unexplained decline in work quality
  • Use of multiple excuses to explain workplace deficiencies

Possible attendance-related indicators include:

  • Frequent lateness
  • Frequent use of sick leave
  • Frequent absenteeism
  • Certain patterns of absenteeism (e.g., on Fridays, Mondays, or in the aftermath of payday)
  • Unexplained disappearances while at work

Relationship problems linked to alcohol use on the job include:

  • Withdrawal from contact with other co-workers or employees
  • Frequent tense or strained interactions with others
  • Outbursts of aggression or belligerence toward others

Societal Effects of Alcohol Except Labor

The social consequences of alcohol use are well-known. People under the influence of beer, wine, or liquor tend to experience a decreased sense of personal inhibition. They also tend to act more impulsively and have a reduced chance of considering their behavior’s consequences as sociological effects of alcohol.

Harms Associated with These Changes Include:

  • Heightened levels of aggression and violence
  • Increased participation in unprotected sex and other risky activities
  • Unplanned pregnancies
  • Increased risks for victimization through sexual or physical assault
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • High chances of dying accidentally

In particular, binge drinking boosts the risks for many of the most severe sociological effects of alcohol. Most bingers are not alcoholics, but repeated participation in this form of drinking leads to a significant increase in alcoholism risks.

Alcoholism and Poverty

There is a known link between economic status and the chances of developing an addiction or non-addicted alcohol abuse. A study was carried out to collect information on income, education, and neighborhood of about 750,000 to 1,200,000 individuals. A mean follow-up time ranging from 10 and 15 years was set, and the people were checked for AUD. Higher education and income and the neighborhood’s socioeconomic status were all associated with a reduced risk for AUD for both males and females of all ages. Simply put, people who grow up in impoverished areas have a higher risk of alcohol problems than people who grow up in middle-class or affluent areas.

Underlying this risk is the fact that weekly drinking in poor neighborhoods exceeds the national average. Also, people living in poor communities have a relatively high level of participation in binge drinking.

Possible Explanations for This Situation Include:

  • A reduced sense of group cohesion in impoverished areas
  • High exposure to stress and trauma
  • The high number of liquor stores in poor communities
  • Lack of employment opportunities in poor communities

Within a family that lacks financial resources, the expense of purchasing alcohol can create a severe strain and reinforce the burdens of poverty. Alcoholism can also strengthen poverty by contributing to absenteeism and erratic performance of job responsibilities.

Homeless adult man sitting on the street.

Family Effects of Alcoholism

The consequences of alcohol on family life include the widespread impact on the health of the family unit. For example, decades of research document the two-way connection between alcohol problems and marital/relationship strife.

Specific Relationship Issues Associated With the Presence of Alcoholism Include:

  • Poor communication
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Domestic violence

Besides, partners and spouses of alcoholics have heightened risks for stress-based health issues. The presence of a parent with alcohol problems can have a profound impact on both younger and older children.

Common Issues for These Children Include Things Such As:

  • A lack of clear or consistent household rules
  • Increased exposure to parental conflict
  • Poor parent-child bonding
  • Lack of adequate parental oversight
  • Increased exposure to violence and other forms of child abuse
  • Increased risks for mental illness

Children of alcoholics also have an increased chance of developing their alcohol problems in later life. Researchers place the level of threat at anywhere from four to nine times greater than the risks for children not raised by alcoholic parents. Children born to alcoholic women (or any woman who drinks during pregnancy) face another potential severe problem in the form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

There are Four Such Disorders:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • Alcohol-related congenital disabilities (ARBD)
  • An alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND)
  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS)

Each of these incurable conditions has its specific effects on the course of average growth and development.

Common Problems Linked to the Presence of a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Include:

  • Poor socialization skills
  • Poor control over impulses and emotions
  • Learning and memory difficulties
  • A low ability to focus attention
  • A decreased ability to carry out an effective daily routine
Alcohol-induced domestic violence.

How Common are Alcohol-Related Crimes?

Alcohol and crime have a strong causal connection. Drunk driving (DUI) is the most common alcohol-related crime in the United States. More than 1.1 million Americans are arrested for driving each year while intoxicated (DWI), and more than half of these arrests end in convictions. Incredibly, this number represents only about one arrest for every 100 actual drunk driving incidents that occur, as reported by drivers.

Meanwhile, on an annual basis, there are more than three million violent crime cases traceable to drinking and its abuse in the U.S. For several specific types of crime (homicide, sexual assault, domestic violence), alcohol is involved in most incidents.

Driving Under the Alcohol Influence

On average, drivers under the influence of alcohol take over 300,000 trips on American roads and highways every day.

Given these statistics, it is hardly surprising that approximately 13,000 people lose their lives in the U.S. each year in traffic accidents caused by alcohol-impaired driving. This represents 40 percent of the country’s annual roadway death toll, and in addition to the fatalities, more than 250,000 people are injured in alcohol-fueled automobile wrecks.

Over $100 billion is lost every year repairing the damage caused to property by drunk driving incidents. But the psychological and emotional damage caused by involvement in alcohol-related crimes like these (and crimes is what they are) is incalculable.

Alcohol and Violence

Since alcohol consumption reduces inhibition, violent crimes are often perpetrated while the criminal is under the influence. Alcohol-related crime statistics show high rates of homicide, assault, domestic and stranger violence, child abuse, and rape and sexual abuse perpetrated by individuals who’ve been drinking and are legally intoxicated. Crime victims often find themselves in harm’s way because of their drinking as well.

Alcohol-related crime statistics reveal a close, intimate connection between alcoholism and violence.

On Average, in Any Given Year:

  • Individuals commit forty percent of homicides under the influence.
  • Forty percent of child abuse incidents will be connected to alcohol use or abuse, and 70 percent of these abusive individuals (parents or guardians) will suffer from a substance use disorder.
  • Thirty-seven percent of rapes and sexual assaults will involve offenders under the influence, and that number jumps to 90 percent when the abuses occur on college campuses.
  • Fifteen percent of robberies, 27 percent of aggravated assaults, and 25 percent of simple assaults will be carried out by individuals who’ve been drinking and are likely under the influence. This amounts to more than 2.5 million incidents of liquor violence.
  • Sixty-five percent of intimate partner violence incidents will be carried out by perpetrators who’ve been drinking. This equates to more than 450,000 such incidents annually.
  • Twenty percent of intimate partner violence incidents involving drinking will include using a gun, knife, or other potentially lethal weapons.
  • Ninety-five percent of violent crimes committed on college campuses will involve drinking, and the total number of such assaults will be greater than 600,000.
  • One hundred eighteen thousand family violence incidents (spouses and partners excluded) will be linked to excessive drinking, as will 744,000 incidents of violence that involve acquaintances.
  • Nearly 60 percent of violent crime victims will end up with injuries, with men being twice as likely to sustain significant injuries as women.
  • Overall, about 40 percent of all violent crimes will be alcohol-related.

The association between alcoholism and rape, domestic violence, homicide, and violence of all types isn’t just limited to the perpetrators. Victims of these crimes are often under the influence of drinking at the time of their victimization, their intoxication making them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Alcohol-Related Crime Convictions

The relationship between alcoholism and crime is reflected in incarceration statistics. Among all criminal convictions that occur within a single year, 40 percent will be related to alcoholism, meaning the offender was either under the influence of liquor while committing the crime or had turned to crime to sustain their liquor dependency.

Among inmate populations, 80 percent have a history of abusing drugs or alcohol, and about half are clinically addicted to one or both. The percentages are the same among juvenile offenders, which shows that the problematic association between criminal behavior and drinking tends to develop early in life.

Responding to Alcohol Problems at Work

There are several potential responses to drinking problems in the workplace. Some employers provide intervention through employee assistance programs (EAP) designed to help resolve a wide range of personal issues, including abuse/addiction. As a rule, these programs are staffed by professional counselors who suggest appropriate courses of action, even for people who just drink a beer before work, as their problem can transform into alcohol abuse with time. Companies that lack EAP resources may rely on human resources (HR) departments to assist.

Drug testing is a way employers may ensure that all employees can work in a drug-free workplace. Drug testing is carried out to detect the presence of alcohol, illicit drugs, or addictive prescription medications if they drink a beer before work. Employees may be asked to pass a drug test, which may be carried on different specimens that include blood, urine, hair, saliva, or sweat samples.

Testing May be Done to Detect: 

  • alcohol
  • amphetamines
  • cocaine
  • marijuana
  • opiates
  • phencyclidine
  • and other substances on employer’s demand

If the test comes positive, the employee may be offered treatment at a rehabilitation program to save him from the consequences of alcohol abuse.

An EAP counselor or HR representative may ask an alcoholic or alcohol-abusing employee to enroll in a substance program. While receiving treatment, employees typically receive approved leave. Upon completing treatment, they can return to work without facing any repercussions. Follow-up care may be provided in the form of periodic counseling or enrollment in a mutual self-help group.

Supervisors who fail to respond to potential signs of alcoholism or alcohol abuse can enable people affected by these conditions.

Actions that May Help Prolong the Problem Include Such Things As:

  • Hiding an employee’s alcohol-impaired behavior
  • Making excuses for an employee’s alcohol-impaired behavior
  • Transferring an employee’s responsibilities to others
  • Failing to alert HR or an EAP counselor to the presence of a potential problem
  • Trying to provide informal counseling instead of relying on available professionals

Every year, the nation’s employers lose tens of billions of dollars in productivity for alcohol-related reasons. Also, people drinking at work have much higher chances of missing work and experiencing work-related injuries. Fortunately, awareness of the signs of alcohol problems can help prevent accidents and other workplace incidents and consequences of alcohol. People who receive proper treatment can recover their sobriety and return to a productive working life.

Cheerful woman explaining sober workplace rules.

Alcohol-Related Crime Prevention Methods

There is no surefire way to prevent any alcohol-related crimes. However, there are preventive measures that will likely reduce their rate of occurrence:

  • Proper education that raises awareness about the current risks of alcohol abuse should be the first step in any harm prevention strategy—and that education must begin early.
  • While banning drinking altogether is an improbable scenario, creating curfews for alcohol serving and consumption that target the specific periods when liquor crimes are the most prominent can have a positive impact.
  • Creating a more affordable and accessible rehabilitation system for those addicted to drinking can help those with chemical dependency make a successful transition back into society, eliminating their need to depend on criminal activity to sustain their addictions.

Alcoholism’s Wide-Ranging Impact

The societal effects of alcohol abuse are far-reaching. Unfortunately, in any given year, less than a third of the millions of Americans with alcohol problems will get the help required to achieve sobriety and reduce their exposure to harm. In practical terms, this means that thousands of the nation’s adults and teenagers will continue to die from preventable alcohol-related causes. It also means that the U.S. will continue to lose billions of dollars annually through workplace disruption, healthcare costs, and other economic factors.

On a family level, alcoholism contributes to everything from parental strife and violence to household instability and increased odds that children will become alcoholics themselves. On a social level, heavy drinking can lead to various harms, including sexual assault and accidental death. Also, alcoholism is a concern in impoverished communities and can contribute to future risks of poverty.

Regardless of the specific crime, alcoholism and dependency frequently play a critical instigating role. Due to the neurological, psychological, and sociological effects of alcohol, people under the influence have a difficult time making logical decisions and, as such, are more likely to resort to criminal activity. AUD and its consequences are the prices of ignorance, and that makes investing in alcoholism awareness and prevention is one of the best ways to cut down on the alcohol-related crime rate.

Is alcohol abuse a social problem? Absolutely. Even in the absence of clinical alcoholism, people who establish a lifestyle built around drinking can experience serious social harm. They can also contribute to an environment that causes harm to others. In fact, on a financial level, most of the adverse societal effects of alcohol are a product of non-addicted binge drinking.

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Page Sources

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Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: April 1st, 2021

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.