How to stay social at work while staying sober


For many individuals who are in recovery and have decided to no longer drink, happy hour provides a dilemma.

For many individuals who are in recovery and have decided to no longer drink, happy hour provides a dilemma.

You’ve had a hard week. You’ve made your quota. You’ve completed that project. The deal has been signed. Now it’s time to celebrate and relax — after all, it’s 5 p.m. somewhere. Happy hour, an end-of-the-workweek ritual for many employees, is a time to socialize with coworkers, friends and strangers, while enjoying discounted prices.

Most people can consume alcohol responsibly and it does not become problematic. But there are some for whom alcohol use becomes out of control and compulsive. The possibility of a genetic predisposition towards alcohol abuse use may run in some families. For others, alcohol may serve as a means to escape from the feelings of depression, despair, and anxiety.

The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has indicated that nearly 80% of individuals struggling with a substance abuse problem also have a co-occurring issue with mental illness. The stigma surrounding both mental illness and substance abuse prevents many from seeking help.

Individuals who have a substance use problem cost U.S. employers $81 billion dollars a year due to loss of productivity and attendance, accidents, theft, and rising healthcare costs. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that over seven million Americans struggle with a substance use disorder.

These numbers demonstrate how important this issue has become. According to a report by the National Business Group on Health, substance-abusing employees function at about two-thirds of their capability.

Addiction is as common as being left-handed. It can take the form of a chemical (drugs and alcohol) or behavioral (gambling, pornography, gaming, spending, the Internet). Many view the face of addiction as a person on the street, living under a bridge with a needle sticking out of his or her arm. It’s important to realize the face of addiction could also be the face of a coworker celebrating happy hour.

On the surface, an employee with an addiction may appear to have it all together — social, confident and outgoing. Below that surface, however, there might be a person who struggles with hopelessness, despair, and engages in unhealthy behaviors, despite the negative consequences it may have upon his or her life. This is addiction. Substance abuse does not discriminate. It affects all realms of our society, all cultures, all ethnicities, all socio-economic groups, and all work environments.

For many individuals who are in recovery and have decided to no longer drink, happy hour provides a dilemma. “Should I even attend?” or, “If I go, how will I manage invitations to drink?” Recent research has also shown that many wonder if they should tell their colleagues in social situations that they don’t drink and are in recovery — and if so, how to do that.

In a study in the journal Health Communication, researchers set out to learn how former problem drinkers (who had been sober for between one and 19 years) navigate social events where alcohol is being served. Their findings revealed that the test subjects were most concerned about being socially stigmatized for being too open about being in recovery. As a result, they resorted to different approaches in refusing alcohol (i.e., turning down a drink without saying why, or ordering a non-alcoholic beverage that could pass as alcohol).

There may be work situations in which the safest and most comfortable strategy for socializing without alcohol is sharing that you’re in recovery. That’s especially true if you’ve had years and years of successful sobriety. If you do choose to share that you’re in recovery, discretion with what you disclose is advisable.

External cues to drink, such as being in a bar, smelling alcohol or seeing your favorite drink on the menu, can be powerful triggers in these situations. If in the face of them, you doubt your resolve to stay sober, politely declining an offer to go to happy hour may be your safest bet.

Similarly, if you suffer from high levels of social anxiety in these situations — and particularly if a former drinking habit began as an effort to cope with these anxieties — you may choose to sit these times out. The uncomfortable thoughts and emotions you experience could trigger the same old cravings and compulsive drinking behaviors you’re trying to avoid. Such “internal cues” to drink can be an even more powerful trigger to relapse than external cues to use alcohol.

One way for all of us to help is to work towards removing the stigma from addiction and mental illness. If we continue to view people who have an addiction as a “criminal,” and/or view individuals with mental illness as “dangerous,” solutions to the problem will continue to evade us.

Employers, employees and the work environment can play a significant role in the de-stigmatizing of addiction and mental illness. Health, wellness and recovery can ensure that true social “happy” hours can occur in the future.