The Disproportionate Risks of Alcoholism in the Hospitality Industry

Studies show that alcoholism in the service industry is higher than in the general population. Surveys in the U.S. and Australia indicate an exceptionally high rate of substance use in the food service sector, while multiple studies conducted in Israel indicate substantial alcohol and illicit drug use among hotel employees.1

What Is the “Hospitality Industry?”

The hospitality industry includes a wide range of jobs, including many positions categorized more broadly as “service” jobs. In the U.S., hospitality includes:

  • Hotels, motels, and resorts
  • The catering and food service industry
  • Travel and transportation agencies

How High Are the Rates of Alcoholism in the Hospitality Industry?

Researchers warn that the rate of alcohol consumption among hospitality employees can cause serious economic harm to the industry and serious health problems for employees.1

In one study of restaurant employees, almost 56% consumed alcohol and almost 37% used marijuana on a daily basis.2

In a study of food service workers, participants reported drinking 1-2 days per week, but the quantity tended to be heavy. Nearly half of men reported had 5 or more drinks on each occasion and over a quarter of women had 4 or more drinks on each occasion at least once a month.3 Participants also reported heavy drinking after work hours or on non-work days.3

A portion of the study used a tool called the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). AUDIT is a 10-item screening tool developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to assess alcohol consumption, drinking behaviors, and alcohol-related problems.

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Some of the self-reported problems and AUDIT-assessed problems associated with alcohol use in this group include:3

  • 20.3% felt guilty after alcohol use
  • 31.6% were unable to remember things that happened after alcohol use
  • 28.2% drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • 70.9% engaged in consumption at a hazardous level
  • 21.4% showed indicators of alcohol dependence
  • 39.6% had already experienced alcohol-related harm

Research Limitations

Researchers note that because the hospitality industry actually encompasses multiple job industries, a single study cannot accurately represent the rate of substance misuse and alcoholism in the service industry. Studies of current hospitality workers also cannot draw conclusions about whether the participants used substances in the same way before jointing the industry. 2

Additionally, even studies within an industry, like the AUDIT-based survey of food service workers, cannot be assumed across all restaurants since food services includes everything from fast food to coffee shops to gourmet restaurants. 2

Which Factors Contribute to Substance Misuse and Alcoholism in the Service Industry?

Alcoholism in the service industry is related to numerous factors.Research shows that jobs like those in the hospitality industry with high demands but low decision-making power, often lead to mental strain. As a hospitality employee, you are required to maintain a fast pace while managing and balancing your own emotions, behaviors, and stress, which requires the use of coping mechanisms. Patterns of chronic substance misuse often develop as a way to cope with overwhelming feelings or stressors.2

The social norms in the hospitality industry play a role as well. Social networks can provide you with positive coping skills, combat feelings of isolation, and provide companionship. On the other hand, social influence can provide you with group norms that promote risky health behaviors like drinking too much alcohol, using alcohol or recreational substances to “unwind” after a long shift, or using substances at work.2

Certain factors present in many hospitality jobs increase the risk of substance misuse and alcoholism in the service industry, including:2

  • Job stress
  • Relaxed work settings
  • Cultural norms and values
  • Little fear of formal sanctions
  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Availability of substances
  • Inadequate prevention policies
  • Socializing with co-workers where alcohol is part of the social setting
  • Irregular work hours
  • Isolation related to living alone or with others who work long shifts or swing shifts

Many jobs in the hospitality industry, such as wait staff in certain food service settings, are also more likely to be younger overall than those in other job sectors. This age demographic combined with other factors may increase the likelihood of misusing substances.

What Are the Effects of Substance Misuse in the Hospitality Industry?

Some researchers warn that the high levels of substance misuse, especially of legal recreational substances like alcohol and marijuana, is likely to have visible effects in the workplace.1

Employers

Employers may notice these potential effects on their business: 1

  • More workplace accidents
  • Lower overall productivity
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Increased staff turnover
  • Higher healthcare usage and more compensation claims

Employers may need to invest more money into hiring and training expenses and observe increased work stress for those that must take on more responsibilities in the absence of another worker.2

However, because substance misuse and alcoholism in the service industry are already the status quo, some researchers suggest that employers should not be trying to eliminate substance use, but to determine how to minimize its harm.1

These researchers suggest that job deterioration based on performance and impairment of employees in sensitive positions are the two risks of concern when hospitality employees use substances. 1

Employees

Alcoholism in the service industry can have negative consequences.Studies show that workers who misuse alcohol have a higher rate of injury. Additionally, chronic heavy misuse of alcohol over time is one major risk factors for dependence, tolerance, and alcohol use disorder.4

AUD is a condition marked by compulsive drinking, loss of control over alcohol use, and negative emotions when not drinking.5 AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe.

Employees in the hospitality industry report higher instances of binge drinking, which also is related to specific risks even if it does not turn into to addiction. Binge drinking is highly correlated to absences from work.4

A large diverse study of food service workers in the U.S. indicates that employee substance use is related to:2

  • Certain health issues
  • Increased instances of driving under the influence
  • Workplace accidents
  • Poor service
  • Lack of team cohesion
  • Increased level of work and stress for coworkers

How Can the Culture in the Hospitality Industry Be Changed?

Informal personnel policies or a lack of formal personnel policies have been identified as facilitating risky health behaviors and encouraging alcohol use for employees.2 Researchers recommend that employers and managers make changes in the work cultures of the service industry.

Recommendations include:1

  • Cultivating an organizational culture that bans substance use
  • Introducing employee assistance programs and interventions
  • Adhering to hiring and termination policies that ensure a “drug-free workplace”
  • Providing workplace training and support for those with alcohol use disorder

While random drug testing is often a first-line policy for reducing drug use in a workplace, one researcher suggests that because moderate off-the-job substance use is so prevalent in the industry, random tests may only identify use and not misuse or addiction. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union indicates that alternatives to randomized drug testing are more cost-effective and provide employees with a better sense of personal privacy and respect from their employer.2

However, more evidence-based studies are needed to determine the value of different interventions for substance use, misuse, and alcoholism in the service industry.

Research also suggests that alcohol interventions and educations must be demographic-specific, such as differentiating between the needs of men and women.4

What Does Alcohol Misuse Look Like?

While alcohol is a legal substance, it is often misused. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Alcohol Team, problematic alcohol use can fall into several categories:5

  • Excessive drinking—Excessive drinking includes heavy drinking (i.e., drinking large amounts of alcohol chronically), binge drinking (i.e., drinking large amounts of alcohol in one sitting), or both
  • Alcohol misuse—Misuse occurs when alcohol use negatively impacts your health, relationships, or ability to work
  • Alcohol dependence—Dependence is one symptom of addiction, characterized by feeling that you need alcohol in order to function normally (e.g., using alcohol to sleep, get through a shift, or relax after a stressful workday)

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the chronic disease associated with withdrawal symptoms, urges or cravings to use alcohol, and loss of control over how much alcohol you drink and how often. “Alcoholism” and “alcohol addiction” are sometimes used to describe the behaviors and symptoms associated with moderate and severe AUD.

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While only a mental health professional can diagnose AUD, you can evaluate yourself for alcohol misuse and identify when you should ask for a screening for AUD. Understanding the signs and symptoms of AUD can also help employers who want to better identify and intervene on behalf of employees with alcoholism in the service industry.

You can look at:6

  • Decisions you make about your alcohol use: Have you ever decided not to drink or to drink only a certain amount, but later had more alcohol than you intended? For example, do you go out with coworkers when you intend to go home after work or accept a few more drinks from patrons than you say you will?
  • How alcohol use impacts your life: Do you spend a lot of time on alcohol? For example, does the amount of time you need to recover after a night out affect your work performance or keep you from getting to work at all?
  • How you feel about your behavior while under the influence: Does how you act when you drink align with how you act when sober? For example, do you drive after drinking or get in the car with coworkers who you have seen drinking?
  • How you feel when you don’t drink: Withdrawal symptoms are a sign of alcohol dependence. When you skip the drinks, do you shake, have trouble sleeping, feel nauseous or irritable?

Substance misuse and alcoholism in the service industry are not unique. While leaving the industry or finding a position at a company where substance use is less acceptable may be useful to you, if you are dependent on or addicted to alcohol, you may need external help to find sobriety.

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Resources

  1. Shani, A. (2016, May 05). Rethinking Substance Use and Abuse among Hospitality Employees. School of Hospitality Administration Boston Hospitality Review.
  2. Shigihara, A. M. (2020, April 08). Health Behaviors in the Service Sector: Substance Use Among Restaurant Employees. Journal of Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences, 14(1), 37-52.
  3. Ames, G. M., Cunradi, C. B., Duke, M. R. & Moore, R. S. (2010). Dimensions of Problem Drinking among Young Adult Restaurant Workers. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, (35)5, 329-333.
  4. Borchgrevink, C. P., Borchgrevink, H. C. & Sciarini, M. P. (2010). Alcohol Consumption Among Hospitality Students and Hospitality Employees: A Replication and Pilot Study. International CHRIE Conference-Refereed Track, 3.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, February 01). Alcohol & Substance Misuse.
  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021, October 26). Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). MedlinePlus.
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