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How to say no to alcohol at a work happy hour.
May 3, 2017

How to Navigate Work Happy Hour When You’re Trying to Stay Sober

A happy hour without booze can seem unfathomable if you’re a working professional in recovery. Then again, so can the prospect of avoiding happy hour altogether. Check out these tips for answering this dilemma for yourself:

How to say no to alcohol at a work happy hour.Whether new to sobriety or seasoned old-timers, those in recovery from alcohol and other substances must often navigate work happy hour and the professional pressures to take part in after-work drinking. Their common quandary can be summed up this way: they want to be social but they also want to stay sober. They ask, “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, and as a result resorted to different approaches in refusing alcohol.

These approaches and other refusal skills are one part of an answer to navigating after-work drinking when you’re trying to stay sober. The other part of that answer involves a look at the pros and cons of coming to happy hour, so that you can decide for yourself what’s best for your sobriety.

Pros and Cons of Joining Colleagues for Happy Hour

Like any decision, discerning whether to attend happy hour when you’re in recovery means weighing the pros and cons. In this case, the pros and cons are both personal and professional. On the one hand, there are the potential benefits (the pros). These can be:

  • Opportunities to network and to build relationships with coworkers
  • Greater rapport and morale among personnel
  • Communicating to your colleagues and/or boss that you are invested in your job and in workplace relationships
  • The freeing discovery that you enjoy and even prefer being sober during conversations with colleagues

On the other hand, there are also the risks and potentially negative consequences (the cons) of joining colleagues for happy hour when you’re trying to stay sober:

  • Divulging too much about your recovery and then risking stigmatization—even job security
  • Giving in to a drink pusher, and then not being able to stop with just one drink (and embarrassing yourself)
  • Experiencing such high levels of social anxiety about being the only one not drinking that you fall off the bandwagon in your sobriety

Potential Relapse Triggers – What to Know

All of the above cons can trigger relapse, the prevention of which ultimately is the first concern when you’re trying to stay sober. In this sense, and depending on your personal situation, the cons may always outweigh the pros. External cues to drink, such as being in a bar, smelling alcohol or seeing your favorite drink on the menu, can be powerful in these situations, and 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 even more powerful relapse triggers than external cues to use alcohol, according to some addiction studies.

During early recovery especially, there is a good case to be made for avoiding work happy hour altogether, if you can. Early recovery tends to be characterized by greater susceptibility to internal and external cues to drink, accompanied by higher rates of relapse during the first year following treatment. That said, even those who have been 10 or 20 years sober can fall prey to temptation, which is why deciding on whether to go to happy hour when you’re trying to stay sober needs to be a personal decision: what’s best for one person in recovery may not work well for another.

How to Socialize Without Alcohol

Whether or not you choose to go to happy hour, knowing how to socialize without alcohol is an important coping tool when you’re a working professional in recovery. Whether it’s a business lunch that surprises you with a bottle of wine, or the open bar at your company’s annual holiday party, alcohol’s ubiquitous presence makes it likely you’ll end up at a work event with alcohol. That makes having some alcohol refusal skills in your pocket indispensable (the goal being to avoid drinking while still enjoying the socialization with colleagues).

In such situations, former problem drinkers tend to take various approaches:

  • Turning down a drink without saying why
  • Ordering a non-alcoholic beverage that could pass as booze (a mocktail like a virgin Bloody Mary, club soda with juice, etc.)

If you are asked why you’re not drinking, it’s helpful to have a short answer ready:

  • “I’m experimenting with not drinking.”
  • “I’m taking a medication.”
  • “I feel a lot healthier not drinking.”

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 very important. Sometimes humor can be an appropriate way of defusing any awkwardness.

For more tips on how to navigate other life-events while in recovery: