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Happy hour culture at work is due for a reckoning

June 6, 2022, 3:38 PM UTC

While working in a London office space last month, Emma-Jane Taylor was prompted to select her favorite beer from a drop-down list as part of a security check to access the Wi-Fi. But the public speaker, mentor, and activist has been sober for nearly three decades. 

“I had my last alcoholic drink 27 years ago,” she wrote in a tweet recounting the experience. “I am 200% annoyed that there was no option for “nondrinker.” It’s a good thing for me to be sober!”

It’s not the first time Taylor was forced to walk the line between booze and work. As a mentor who helps clients develop career paths, she attends numerous cocktail receptions and work events where alcohol is prevalent. 

“When I get to an event, the first thing they do is offer me a canapé and an alcoholic drink,” she tells Fortune. “I’m always looking for fizzy water or still water and am surprised they don’t have it on offer.”

When drinking culture and office culture overlap, it can be fraught for the millions of people like Taylor who choose not to drink—or the millions more who, since the pandemic hit, have begun to struggle with alcohol. 

Sixty percent of people increased their alcohol consumption during quarantine, according to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. Drizly, a digital marketplace for beer, wine, and spirits, saw nearly 500% sales growth in spring 2020, its head of consumer insights told Fortune at the time. At the same time, the “sober curious” movement has also gained substantial steam, with beverage companies saturating the market with more 0% ABV drinks. 

As the pandemic changed workers’ relationship with alcohol in many ways, employers may find themselves needing to rethink how booze fits into the workplace now that more people are returning to the office.

The happy hour conundrum

Companies worldwide have been implementing boozy perks—from Prosecco taps to beer fridges—since the 2010s in hopes of attracting younger workers. And alcohol has long been a staple at company parties and events, provided to help employees relax, connect, and have fun. 

The happy hour culture is endemic to many organizations, says Laura Silverman, who runs Zero Proof Nation, a community platform that showcases alcohol-free products, events, and experiences around the country. 

“When I worked in corporate, all the holiday gatherings and conferences were just so, so soaked in alcohol,” Silverman, who now works on a freelance basis, tells Fortune. She added that it was difficult being the only sober person, with club soda and Diet Coke as the only nonalcoholic options. 

But while alcohol is typically considered a social lubricant, its ability to help people loosen up is “more myth than fact,” David Lardier Jr., Ph.D., a substance use specialist and therapist, told Fortune last month. And when employers use it as an incentive, they inadvertently put pressure on employees who may fear missing out on team bonding or networking if they ditch happy hour.

“In our culture, alcohol is the only drug that’s considered normal to imbibe in and abnormal not to take,” Silverman says. “But you shouldn’t be dinged in your performance as an employee if you don’t hang out [at happy hours] as much.”

Silverman added that at previous jobs everyone knew her as “the sober girl” because she didn’t want to compromise her sobriety to fit in. 

Making mocktails part of DEI

Cheryl Brown Merriwether, executive director of the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE), advises companies on how to be inclusive of employees who may be struggling with substance abuse issues. 

She recommends employers to be “very cautious” about the messages they’re sending regarding alcohol. “People can be very selective now about where they want to work, and they’re really sizing up what companies value,” she says.

Neglecting to consider nondrinkers’ experiences would be the company’s loss. Merriwether says there are currently about 23 million Americans in recovery from alcohol or other drugs—and that figure doesn’t include sober-curious people or people who don’t drink at all for health or religious reasons.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion extends beyond race and religion; it means embracing different lifestyle choices, like sobriety,” Merriwether says. “It’s as simple as ensuring menus at parties or events include nonalcoholic beverages—the mocktail industry is worth multiple billions—and not holding events that are just drinking-focused.”

When in doubt, just ask 

For newly sober people, turning down a drink can take practice. Individuals need to devise their own script that matches their personality and situation. There’s no right or wrong way, no too-obscure or too-revealing answer.

But Merriwether encourages people who don’t drink for any reason to confidently make their choice clear. Doing so may give other nondrinkers a confidence boost or lead to a dialogue among company leaders. 

Aside from big-ticket events like holiday parties, should an office choose to stock a beer fridge or sponsor a happy hour or off-site gathering, the onus is on the company to make sure there are options for people who don’t drink. 

It’s not unusual for employers to suggest activities that involve alcohol as a way to team build. But instead of assuming what employees want or would enjoy, managers should instead ask each person what they’d prefer. 

It’s incumbent upon employers to pause long enough to ask that kind of question, Merriwether says. “You just want to provide employees with something they value—because you value them.”

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