3 Tips for Navigating Work Events as a Sober Person
How recovering addicts can handle gatherings that are essential opportunities to network and build relationships.
Cocktail parties, client dinners, team celebrations, and regular after work "happy hours" are all opportunities to network and build relationships with colleagues and potential partners. However, for people recovering from addiction like myself, events like these where alcohol is served can be uncomfortable — especially early on in your sobriety journey.
Many people face situations like these every day. Individuals from all genders, ethnicities, socio-economic levels, educational backgrounds, and occupations struggle with addiction. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in the U.S. over 20 million people had a substance use disorder. Of these people, 14.5 million struggle with alcohol abuse, known as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
Attending work functions while protecting sobriety is challenging, stressful and often overwhelming for the millions of working professionals in recovery. But it gets easier, especially when you put safeguards in place. The following tips can help those practicing sobriety navigate gatherings where alcohol is served in a safe way:
Make a plan
While attending work functions with alcohol, it is likely that non-drinkers will be offered drinks, or even asked why they are not drinking. Having a plan for how to respond can take some of the stress out of this situation.
For people in recovery, it can be as simple as telling colleagues that you don't drink or politely declining the offer of a drink. Other approaches people in recovery take in disclosing reasons for not having a drink were highlighted in a study published in the journal Health Communications. Strategies that study participants used to navigate work situations where alcohol is involved included holding a cup but not drinking or turning down drink offers without saying why. Some participants indicated they cited health problems or being on medication that didn't allow them to drink alcohol, while others would try to use humor to change the subject.
The study found that the level of openness on the topics of not drinking or about being in recovery depended on the amount of concern study participants had about being socially stigmatized for being too open.
Sobriety is a completely personal journey, and the choice to be open about it or to take another approach such as those mentioned above is in your control. Both are completely valid ways of approaching sobriety around colleagues and clients, but knowing which avenue you'd like to take, having a plan and practicing what to say can make these work functions a little more comfortable from the start. And as you continue to find yourself in these situations, you'll notice how much easier each interaction gets. The hardest hurdles to get through are at the beginning of your sobriety journey, and you'll find your pace as time goes on.
Have a support system in place
Prior to attending a work function involving alcohol, recovering addicts should talk to friends, family or a mentor/sponsor about their concerns. It is also helpful to ask someone in their support system to be on standby to provide support if needed, and to develop a strategy to check-in at various times throughout the event. Whether that's a quick text or setting aside a few minutes to go outside, take a call, get some air, and regroup from everything going on — having that outlet can really help. Another strategy for navigating these events is to ask someone who knows what you're going through to be your plus one, if bringing a guest is possible.
Develop an exit strategy
Set a plan to leave early if feelings of stress and temptation become too much. Feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable at functions like these is natural, especially early in the recovery journey. If you find that happens, leaving is the best course of action for protecting sobriety. Having a plan for leaving the event, whether it is driving home, having someone pick you up or using a ride share service allows for a quick exit from a stressful situation and a return to people and places of comfort.
These are a few of the strategies people in recovery can use to navigate work events involving alcohol, but there are also things employers can do to encourage bonding activities that don't involve alcohol. Companies can create positive workplace events that are more supportive of employees in recovery by:
- Making networking the focus of happy hours.
- Shifting the venue for networking activities and work events to a place not centered on alcohol such as a driving range or bowling alley.
- Developing more inclusive, alcohol-free company events such as a movie or book club, sports tournament, or group volunteer days.
Maintaining sobriety is a lifelong journey. The bottom line for people in recovery is to make sure you are doing what's best for your sobriety. That might mean using the strategies outlined above or not attending at all. Everyone handles sobriety differently, and there is no right or wrong way to navigate it. The important thing is to not let this journey stop you from living your life — try integrating different strategies until you find one that works for you and your comfort level. Those strategies may change over time as you become more comfortable and maybe more open about your journey. However you let it unfold, make sure it is on your own terms and timeline.
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