How drinking harms on-the-job efficiency

For the first time, study finds that social drinkers - not alcoholics - are a bigger drain on productivity.

Joan Betty was just a social drinker. But both her parents were alcoholics. After her mother died, Ms. Betty decided it was time to reassess what drinking was doing to her, at home and at work. She didn't like what she found.

"After a night of even mild drinking, I wouldn't sleep as well, so I would be overly tired at work," says Betty, a successful prosecutor who asked that her real name not be used. "I just wasn't up to par, wasn't as productive."

Betty's experience is not unique. Millions of social drinkers across the United States know well that sinking feeling of waking up tired, irritable, and dragging into the office, often late.

For the first time, researchers have documented that it is these social drinkers - not the hard-core alcoholics or problem drinkers - who are responsible for most of the estimated $67 billion worth of lost productivity that's attributed each year to alcohol-related problems.

The implications are expected to transform corporate drinking policies across the country. Most now focus strictly on people with serious alcohol problems. As a result of this study, researchers say, they should start educating every worker about the negative "stealth effects" of even low levels of drinking at work, and any heavy drinking off the job.

"For the first time, it specifically ties the hangover issue to production in the workplace," says Robert Stutman, chairman of Employee Information Services, a corporate drug and alcohol consulting company in Coral Springs, Fla. "It really asks the question: Does the employer have the right to deal with the private life of the employee concerning alcohol use - the way we do with drug testing?"

Mr. Stutman's company advises more than 600 corporations across the country on their drug and alcohol policies. He plans to contact each one and discuss possible changes as a result of the findings.

Results and methodology

Marianne Lee of JSI Research and Training Institute in Boston, one of the study's authors, says: "The key point of this study is to send a message to employees, not that we are going to fire you or discipline you for your behavior. But that you ought to think about how much you're drinking the night before a busy day."

Conducted over four years at seven Fortune 500 companies by JSI and researchers from the Harvard and Boston University Schools of Health, the study also found that 80 percent of the drinking that took place during the workday, took place at lunch. The study found that even a glass of wine or a beer with a burger impaired worker productivity.

Counter to popular wisdom, the study also found that it was managers, not hourly employees, who were most often drinking during the workday. Twenty-three percent of upper managers and 11 percent of first-line supervisors said they had a drink during the workday, compared with only 8 percent of hourly employees.

"Basically, managers are freer to leave the workplace to go some place for lunch where alcohol might be available," says JSI's Tom Mangione. "People who are doing it are mostly doing it out in the open, in an acceptable way."

Interviews with corporate executives found that many are hesitant to intrude into their employees' private lives, and many consider lunch the employees' private domain. But Jonathan Howland of the BU School of Public Health, another of the study's authors, says that companies don't need to do a lot to change people's behavior - just tell them about the negative effects of hangovers and even one glass of wine at lunch.

"Most workers want to do a good job, and if you tell them about the relationship between their drinking practices and performance that they didn't know before, a lot of them will adjust their drinking behavior," says Mr. Howland.

Public-health advocates hope this study will prompt Americans to reassess the culture that has grown up around drinking.

"Intoxication has become normalized and condoned," says Diana Conti, executive director of the Marin Institute, a substance-abuse prevention think tank in San Rafael, Calif. "We've created a culture that says, 'The only way to have fun is to be intoxicated.' How did that happen?"

Ms. Conti and others, like George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, believe that alcohol is a drug that needs to have a "balanced public-health approach." They hope the study will fuel efforts to change the alcohol industry's advertising campaigns.


But the Wine Institute contends that the study "reinforces our message, which is moderation at all times: Only one drink for a woman and two for a man," says the Institute's Elisabeth Holmgren.

The study, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also found that 21 percent of employees said their own productivity had been affected because of a co-worker's drinking. Betty has firsthand experience with such "secondhand effects."

"I had one co-prosecutor who literally passed out during a hearing and blamed it on dehydration," she says. "But now I know it was related to some serious drinking the night before."

Betty decided she didn't want to deal with alcohol anymore, and she gave up drinking completely. It's a decision she doesn't regret. "I'm just much happier all around," she says.

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