In Secondhand Drinking, Alcohol Misuse

happy-employeesAs you’ve likely noticed, the tag line for this site is, “Secondhand Drinking – The Other Side of Alcohol Misuse.” Alcohol misuse refers to drinking patterns (binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism) that cause a person to engage in drinking behaviors.

Secondhand Drinking and the Alcohol Misuse Connection

These behaviors are not intentional. They are not the “real” person coming out, rather they’re the consequence of the ethyl alcohol chemical in alcoholic beverages changing brain function when alcohol is misused.

Drinking behaviors include: verbal, physical or emotional abuse; driving while impaired; “falling asleep” most nights right after dinner (and the beers and wine consumed after work); being so drunk one is not aware of their surroundings or actions, thereby putting sober friends in the role of protector and monitor, making sure s/he doesn’t wander off, have unplanned or unwanted sex, drive impaired…; domestic violence; committing a crime; creating a safety risk or productivity burden for co-workers (e.g., reporting to work hung-over); sexual assault; going off on random tangents; being especially loving or attentive and expecting it to be reciprocated; generating significant economic costs to others related to lost workplace productivity, health care expenses for problems related to excessive drinking; and criminal justice and law enforcement expenses related to alcohol consumption, to name a few.

People on the receiving end of drinking behaviors can experience a range of negative physical, emotional and/or quality-of-life impacts, often related to ongoing activation of the brain’s fight-or-flight stress response system.

Just Like Secondhand Smoke

Similar to the idea that secondhand smoke causes health problems for those exposed to a person’s smoking, this here-to-fore nameless “thing” related to a person’s drinking behaviors – this secondhand drinking – can cause health or quality-of-life impacts for those exposed to it.

This is especially true if they are the family member (husband, wife, sibling, parent, child, grandparent, boyfriend, girlfriend) or close friend or through that connection, a co-worker.

Over the course of their one time or ongoing exposure to SHD, these individuals become casualties, suffering their own physical and emotional health impacts. These health impacts can include: anxiety, depression, stomach ailments, skin problems, obesity, sleep difficulties, migraines and a whole range of other conditions.

These individuals experience quality-of-life impacts, such as a forced relocation, lost friendships, unsatisfactory working conditions, self-esteem issues, unstable financial situations and strained relationships with family members.

These innocent sufferers have no idea that secondhand drinking is the cause of their health conditions, relationship problems, quality-of-life or work/school performance issues. Just as persons exposed to secondhand smoke had no idea another person’s cigarette smoke was the reason for their severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, heart disease or lung cancer until the 1970s.

It took new scientific research not available until the 1970s to provide people with the information they needed to effectively protect their health from another person’s cigarette smoke. The resulting health protection messages were not about the smoker; rather they were about the health impacts to others of secondhand smoke.

Unable to effectively name SHD, and therefore unable to effectively talk about it, those experiencing secondhand drinking only know the subtle, frightening, life-changing outcomes. Without a common term, until recently, to talk about the common thread – impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others – millions of Americans and those whose lives they touch, experience SHD’s undetected, unchallenged march through their lives.

Secondhand Drinking in the Workplace

Secondhand Drinking (SHD)’s influence impacts the workplace in three ways:

  • directly through an employee who causes it (i.e., an employee who misuses alcohol either on the job, at lunch or the night before a work day)
  • directly through an employee experiencing it personally
  • indirectly through exposure to either or both of the above.

In other words, SHD crosses spectrums from those directly affected by SHD — family members living with someone whose behaviors change when they drink, for example — to a co-worker whose own workplace experience suffers as a consequence of their fellow-employee’s ongoing exposure to SHD.

To get a further sense of the kinds of direct and indirect affects of SHD in the workplace, consider the jobs a person experiencing it or a person causing it might do:

  • Drive company vehicles (fire truck, police car, school bus, logging truck)
  • Operate machinery
  • Handle chemicals
  • Handle confidential ideas, products, plans or documents
  • Handle cash, accounting, inventory or stock
  • Represent the company at conferences or in the public eye
  • Monitor computers, nuclear power dials, air traffic control
  • Manage employees
  • Be one of a team providing health, safety or defense services (e.g., firefighters, police, military)

Here are some numbers to further put SHD workplace impacts into perspective:

  • Over one-third of employees reported at least one of their coworkers had been distracted, less productive or missed work because of alcohol or drug abuse or alcoholism or drug addiction within their family.(1)
  • More than half of working family members of alcoholics report that their own ability to function at work and at home was negatively impacted by their family member’s drinking.(2)
  • Alcoholism is estimated to cost 500 million lost workdays annually,(3) which imposes a burden on co-workers.
  • Fourteen percent of employees in one survey said they had to re-do work within the preceding year because of a co-worker’s drinking.(4)
  • Employees who drink heavily away from work are more likely than other employees to exhibit job withdrawal behaviors, such as spending work time on non-work-related activities, taking long lunch breaks, leaving early, or sleeping on the job,(5) which then impacts the workload, job satisfaction and safety of other employees. These same types of behaviors are also exhibited by the family member or close friend who constantly cope with SHD away from work.
  • Employees who drink heavily off the job are more likely to experience hangovers that cause them to be absent from work; show up late or leave early; feel sick at work; perform poorly; or argue with their coworkers,(6) which also impacts fellow employees’ workplace experiences as well as their health, wellness and safety.

Bottom Line

It is no wonder SHD can affect up to 40% of a company or public agency’s workforce.

Attacking the underlying problem, a person’s drinking behaviors, from the other side – preventing and protecting oneself from secondhand drinking – offers a sea change opportunity.

Providing employees with the science of Secondhand Drinking – its causes, impacts and remedies – via the workplace can produce a counter ripple effect of equal force. For it is in the workplace that millions of Americans typically spend 8 hours/day, 5 days a week, often 50 weeks/year.

This is good for employees, it is good for public agency missions and it is good for a company or public agency’s bottom line.


[1] Hazelden Foundation, “’Making Recovery America’s Business’ Survey Tables,” 2005, (accessed on 11.12.13 through contact with the Hazelden Foundation)

[2] SAMHSA, “Issue Brief #7 for Employers, ‘What You Need to Know About the Cost of Substance Abuse,’” <> (accessed on 11.13.13)

[3] SAMHSA, “Issue Brief #7 for Employers, ‘What You Need to Know About the Cost of Substance Abuse,’” <> (accessed on 11.13.13)

[4] SAMHSA, “Issue Brief #7 for Employers, ‘What You Need to Know About the Cost of Substance Abuse,’” <> (accessed on 11.13.13)

[5] SAMHSA, “Issue Brief #1 for Employers, ‘Save Your Company Money by Assuring Access to Substance Abuse Treatment,’” <> (accessed on 11.13.13)

[6] SAMHSA, “Issue Brief #1 for Employers, ‘Save Your Company Money by Assuring Access to Substance Abuse Treatment,’” <> (accessed on 11.13.13)

Lisa Frederiksen
Lisa Frederiksen has a 39-year career in executive management, consulting, speaking, training and writing and is the founder of and SHD Prevention. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and eleven books, including, "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," "Secondhand Drinking: The Phenomenon That Affects Millions," and “If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!” She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, trainer, and frequent guest on radio, TV, and Internet radio shows.
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