9 ways companies can support sober employees

Give mocktails equal love.
Give mocktails equal love.
Image: Courtesy Deborah Miller Caterers
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The office happy hour is a survivor. Last year, as the pandemic began, it migrated online swiftly, just days after lockdowns began.

I remember feeling heartened by the quick regrouping, which I read as a sign of resilience and solidarity. Even a pandemic was not about to dislodge an office tradition. But Heather Lowe, the personal coach behind the consulting firm Ditched The Drink, saw “quarantinis” as more proof of alcohol’s hold on workplace culture.

That isn’t to say she was surprised. Before the pandemic, companies leaned on martinis, champagne, craft beer, wine, and cocktails to recruit potential hires, woo clients at business lunches, celebrate milestones, reward top performers, launch products, and mark the beginning of every weekend.

You didn’t have to be at a place like WeWork with beer kegs a few feet from your desk to have regular access to company-sponsored booze. Nor could you entirely evade the pressure to drink, even at a firm like Salesforce, where the CEO has been adamant about keeping alcohol off the premises, citing legal risks. People still encountered drinks at work-related events, where servers swirled around the room with trays of champagne, wine, and—too often—ice water with lemon as the only option for non-drinkers.

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The research on alcohol and performance

“We glorify alcohol like it’s this awesome, funny, hilarious way to bond with each other,” Lowe says. “People believe that it helps them relax, but that’s true for 20 minutes and you spend the rest of the night chasing that high.” You’re also likely to wake up the next morning worrying about something you said or wondering what kind of impression you made. “There’s a disconnect from what we think alcohol does to what it actually does in the workplace,” Lowe explains. She discovered that gap first-hand after developing an alcohol-use disorder earlier in her career, while working in a sales role.

Indeed, the research is clear that alcohol negatively impacts productivity and company performance, says Enid Chung Roemer, an associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she is the deputy director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies. Alcohol consumption has been connected to workplace accidents, presenteeism, and lower productivity, because it impairs a person’s ability to concentrate and can make them sleepy.

There’s no argument about the increased risk of addiction, of workplace injuries, poor decision making, poor performance,” Roemer tells Quartz. “Do a Google search and you’ll just find reams of research about all the poor outcomes in the workplace related to alcohol use and abuse.” (Rarely do these consequences appear in pop culture depictions of boozing at work.)

What’s more, companies that overemphasize booze are alienating a large part of their staff, not only those who are cutting back or eliminating drinking from their lifestyle. People also abstain from drinking for religious reasons, or because they’re pregnant or caring for young children, or because of an array of health concerns. Recent research has linked regular, moderate consumption of alcohol to life-shortening illnesses, including several types of cancer and heart disease.

In time, as a younger, far less alcohol-obsessed generation takes over the workplace, businesses may begin paring back the company-sponsored beer taps for late-afternoon brainstorming and holiday party boozeapaloozas.

Until then, here’s what experts suggest companies do to support the abstainers and those who are just seeking to cut back, during the pandemic and beyond.

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1. Understand what it means to quit drinking

Before an organization makes sober-friendly changes, its leaders should interrogate their own belief systems and biases around alcohol and its role in the workplace. Alcohol is the only drug that leads to stigma for people who quit using it, says Lowe. “I think the first thing to change is this old idea that you have to hit some sort of rock bottom—that you have to go to jail, you have to lose your job, you have to be hospitalized—in order to decide to quit drinking, that quitting drinking is a sad thing and it leads to a life of deprivation,” she says.

Any of us can choose to quit drinking at any time for any reason, says Lowe, and it’s one of the healthiest things we can do. For some people, it may be about beating an addiction; for others, it’s more like skipping the free pizza or office birthday cake, a change in daily habits that would never mark a person as troubled.

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2. Offer excellent mental health and addiction recovery benefits

Employees who are dealing with addiction are more likely to get the care they need if it’s covered by insurance. At the very least, they should be made aware of any company-sponsored, anonymous employee assistance programs that might offer addiction counseling. “Exploring accessible and cost-effective alcohol-use disorder treatment options for your team is the most impactful decision you can make for your employees,” says Kelly Gardiner, head of marketing at Tempest, an online alcohol addiction recovery program. Pre-pandemic research found that one in five employees was a binge-drinker, she adds, which equated to billions of dollars in lost productivity annually. Sadly, both hospital reports and alcohol sales suggest the stress of the pandemic has led to an uptick in drinking, particularly by people under 40.

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3. Think holistically about how stress and exhaustion can trigger an urge to drink

People often turn to substances like alcohol with the mistaken belief that they will soothe their anxiety during intensely uncertain times, or help them unwind before revving up for another turbo-charged day. Therefore, says Roemer, companies should think holistically about what they can do to support people’s physical and mental health. One simple step: Ensure your office has a quiet place for people to work or to sit in silence and recharge.

That tip is included in a healthy workplace scorecard that Roemer’s institute co-developed with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It lists dozens of steps that companies can take to help people live healthier, less sedentary, more balanced lives. One section offers tips on curbing or eliminating alcohol use, and what to do when you believe an employee has a drinking problem. Conversations about alcohol and what role it plays in your employees’ lives can also be embedded in less-threatening topics—for example, during workshops about general nutrition or stress management.

In Quit Like A Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020), author Holly Whitaker writes that work became a central force in her life in the years when she developed a drinking problem. Her office, a San Francisco-based startup, was the place where she could still be “the worthy, together version of herself” that eluded her elsewhere. Arguably, company leaders ought to be aware that work can be this kind of sanctuary for people battling problems and do what they can to make work a safe place.

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4. Take inventory—and consider dumping it

When your office reopens, why not start afresh and clean out that stash of beer and wine that has been sitting in the office kitchen for the past year?

Does this seem drastic? Sure. Do you have reason to fear backlash from employees who enjoy drinking at work, as Walmart did when it banned alcohol from Jet’s office after it bought the e-commerce firm? Yes. However, that’s not the only possible outcome should your organization drop the alcohol (and its costs) when offices reopen.

A few years ago, Wired’s Klint Finley reported on a Philadelphia tech company that stopped maintaining a beer fridge, instead giving employees vouchers for coffee shops and a local pizza shop that sold beer. People could have used the coupons for bottles of beer to drink at their desks, but they mostly didn’t. “In other words,” Finley wrote, “given other options, even people who aren’t teetotalers will often opt for a non-alcoholic beverage.”

“If you’re going to go to an extreme, it’s better to have a workplace culture that has a written policy that is articulated and promoted that bans alcohol and other substance use at the workplace,” says Roemer. “Working and using drugs and alcohol do not go together.”

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5. Keep interesting non-alcoholic drinks at the ready in the office

If your office keeps a stash of spirits, wine, or beer, or your in-house cafeteria serves alcohol, be sure to also stock a variety of non-alcoholic drinks that adults would enjoy, like kombucha or ice brew coffee and sparkling waters. Alcohol-free versions of hard drinks are also good, says Lowe—non-alcoholic beers, wines, and spirits have improved dramatically.

“I think the kindest thing, the smallest step an employer could take, is just ensuring that there are thoughtful alcohol-free options,” Annie Grace, a writer and podcaster who has documented her own history finding sobriety, tells Quartz.

“It’s the equivalent of what we dealt with maybe 10 years ago when you’d put out snacks in between meetings, and it used to be candy bars or whatever happened to be,” says Brandon Smith, an executive coach, author, and instructor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “Now there’s much more of an intentionality by a lot of employers to put out healthy snacks that involve more fruits and nuts and things that aren’t so processed. It’s being thoughtful about the minds and bodies of our employees.”

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6. Hire caterers who have followed the sober-curious trend

David Woods, managing director of Deborah Miller Catering in New York City, has been in the food and hospitality business for 30 years. When he started, three-martini lunches were the rule of thumb for corporate clients, and company parties and weddings were equally booze-soaked. Today, people will drink heavily at a wedding, he says, but at business events his clients are reluctant to have more than one drink. Though there are still industries, like technology, in which companies build bars and “speakeasies” as employee amenities, heavy drinking at industry events is outdated, partly because people of all genders are paying far more attention to what they’re putting in their bodies, he proposes, and partly because the ubiquity of smartphone cameras means “there’s a level of eyes on everything.”

At business and social events, catering customers want bespoke signature cocktails, Woods continues, but they have to be made with freshly harvested ingredients.  Garden-to-cocktail drinks are “fun, healthy, and also just really yummy and delicious,” he says, “And, you know, if you make some wonderful juice, you can serve it as a spritzer, you can serve it as the juice, you can serve it with vodka. That makes it interesting for everybody, because then you’re not just sitting there with a bunch of people asking for a club soda and looking like the odd one out.”

Alcoholic or not, the mixed drinks should look identical to each other so that people who aren’t drinking can get just as excited about their muddled mojitos, grown-up slushies, or frozen hot chocolate, and won’t stand out as nondrinkers to those few inevitable partygoers whose disarmed prefrontal cortex can’t stop them from asking, “Why aren’t you drinking?”

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7. Choose restaurants over pubs, or bars with excellent non-alcoholic drinks

People can bond over food, says Roemer, so choose restaurants instead of bars when you’re looking for a local hangout for a team gathering. If a bar it must be, preview the menu to ensure your chosen venue serves sophisticated non-alcoholic drinks and mocktails. For online gatherings, invite a mocktail specialist from a bar that only serves alcohol-free drinks, like Sans Bar and others, to run a mixology seminar, Tempest’s Gardiner proposes.

A fizzy mocktail by David Woods of Deborah Miller Caterers.
A fizzy mocktail by David Woods of Deborah Miller Caterers.
Image: Courtesy Deborah Miller Caterers

Managers ought to remember that what they might see as “optional” company-sponsored outings often feel obligatory to employees, so simply expecting people who don’t want to drink to skip the event is not realistic, says Smith. If the company is paying for it, “then there is a spoken or unspoken expectation that you should be there, and that’s when employers have to be very thoughtful.”

8. Develop a repertoire of inclusive bonding activities that don’t center on alcohol

Grabbing drinks remains the default for team-building events and networking. It’s an easy activity to arrange. Plus, says Smith, “it works quickly.” In Japan, the word nominication (a portmanteau of “nomu,” which means to drink, and “communication”) refers to drinking with your boss and co-workers with abandon, and ignoring rules about hierarchy and social expectations that exist in the office, a kind of extreme version of the same story Westerners tell themselves about booze as a social lubricant.

But there’s no reason to perpetuate that exclusionary (and often inaccurate) narrative, says Deloitte’s Fisher. “Supporting professionals to build meaningful relationships with their colleagues and teams is important, but you don’t need alcohol to do it. In fact, there are a lot of creative ways to support social connection,” she says. “For instance, instead of a ‘happy hour’ you can host a meditation session, a cooking course, make art together, or even start a book club.” And you can do all of that online, when necessary.

Lowe finds it exasperating that companies cling to drinks when there are “limitless things that adults do to enjoy themselves together, and there are sober communities of people having the time of their life without alcohol.” Although it can be tricky to find one focus that will appeal to people with varied interests—and is inclusive of all age groups and physical abilities, and isn’t asking for too much travel or time of people with dependents waiting for them at home—it’s not impossible.

“My first piece of advice when creating any employee experience would be [to] ask: ‘Why? Why are we doing this, what is the goal? Why are we including alcohol?’” Gardiner says.

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9. Ask people what they need—even if you’re not a manager

Not all of the effort to make your office and industry culture less like a college frat house needs to come from management. In fact, many of the ideas above could be instigated by anyone who feels motivated enough. Because every office culture is different, it’s also up to individuals to suss out what’s needed for their own specific situation. Talk to your peers about what they want and need to improve their own well-being, Fisher suggests. “Whether they’re around drinking, or nutrition, or mental well-being, or something else,” she adds, “encouraging open and honest conversations helps to create a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels respected and supported.”