Hangovers - A Pain in the Workplace

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Updated July 12, 2013.

Excessive drinking by employees cost businesses and industries worldwide billions of dollars each year in absenteeism and lost productivity, but it is not the heavy drinkers or alcoholics who are mostly responsible.

New research shows that it is the light or light-to-moderate drinkers who cause the most problems. More than half of all alcohol-related problems in the workplace are caused by light drinkers, and 87 percent by light-to-moderate drinkers.

The problems are mostly due to hangovers.

It's the Light Drinkers

"In the medical community, we tend to focus on alcoholics. But that's a very small number of people, whereas being hung over is a common thing," said Dr. Jeffrey Wiese, medical professor at the University of California. He and colleagues at a San Francisco veterans hospital reviewed medical studies on alcohol use published between 1966 and 1999.
Wiese's research appeared in the June 6, 2000 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, a biweekly journal published by the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine.

Although hangovers might be considered trivial - just deserts for the overindulgent - it has substantial economic consequences, Wiese said in his report. A recent British study noted that alcohol use accounted for 2 billion pounds ($3.3 billion U.S.) in lost wages each year, most of which resulted from work missed because of hangover. Alcohol costs in Canada amount to $7.5 billion each year, and $1.4 billion is lost each year because of decreased occupational productivity caused by hangover-like symptoms.

Studies in other countries show similar estimates for the annual cost of alcohol ingestion: Australia, $3.8 billion; New Zealand, $331 million; and the United States, $148 billion.

More Insidious Than Inebriation

In the workplace, the greatest cost incurred by alcohol is the decreased productivity of affected employees as a result of hangover-related absenteeism and poor job performance, Wiese says.
In Finland, which has a population of 5 million persons, more than 1 million workdays are lost each year because of hangover. Light-to-moderate users of alcohol -- 0 to 3 drinks per day for men and 0 to 1 drink per day for women -- account for most of the lost-work costs because they make up most of the work force.

The primary morbidity that affects light-to-moderate drinkers is the hangover, not the long-term consequences of alcohol abuse, such as cirrhosis and cardiomyopathy. Chronic alcoholism is responsible for only a small proportion of the total societal cost of alcohol use, the report said.

Researchers also found that people with hangovers posed a danger to themselves and others long after their blood alcohol levels had returned to normal, suggesting that hangovers could be more insidious than actual inebriation.

"Even if you don't feel severely hungover, your cognitive abilities, concentration and technical skills may actually be diminished," Wiese said. "With inebriation, you're at least more aware of it perhaps more than with a hangover."

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