Sober Curious Enters the Workplace

    Happy hour is facing a reckoning. Will businesses take a sober second look at the culture of drinking?

    Sober Curious - Douglas 10 to watch issue 2023
    Michael Walsh considers himself a coach, not a counsellor. Photo By: Lia Crowe.

    Michael Walsh is quick to point out that he’s not a counsellor, but a recovery coach. When he says he’s seen it all, he means it. He’s done all-nighters, experienced blackouts, job losses and financial difficulties. He’s been through various therapies and detox facilities. But he’s a different person now, and he’s here to help. 

    Walsh is a certified recovery coach who has worked with the Victoria Cool Aid Society and Island Health, and founded a support group in Victoria in 2014. He is more of a coach than a judge. He recognizes that there are shades of grey in the process of recovery, that sobriety is not a cliff so much as a slippery slope. He offers addiction support to stop, cut back or take a break from alcohol. And rather than preach, he asks questions:

    • Are you sober curious, want to cut down or take a break?
    • Do you want to get back on track after a relapse?
    • Do you want to explore an alternative to a rigid 12-step program?
    • Have you stopped drinking many times but can’t seem to stay stopped?

    And perhaps the most important question of all: “If you’re saying yes to alcohol, what are you staying no to?”

    With the rise of telehealth and online resources, Walsh’s goal is to create a custom strategy for each client, whether the goal is full abstinence or moderation. To that end, he has helped create an innovative online home-based recovery program aimed at low to moderate drinkers who want the tools to change their behaviour.

    Many of Walsh’s clients include Island business owners and employees. Most workplace trends turn over quickly, but drinking — from mimosas at lunch to post-work beers — has always been seen as a way to have a good time. Conversely, not drinking has seemed somewhat suspect; abstaining is often interpreted as a tacit indication that you struggle with alcoholism, itself historically stigmatized and kept private, or that you’re just a virtuous teetotaller who doesn’t know how to have fun.

    Unfortunately, there’s a high proportion of “functional” drinkers on the job, the so-called grey-area drinkers. 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. Alcohol consumption has been connected to workplace accidents, absenteeism and lower productivity, mostly because it impairs a person’s ability to concentrate. 

    As defined by author Jolene Park, grey-area drinking is “the space between rock bottom and every-now-and-then drinking.” You might drink more than is considered safe, but still manage to maintain a socially accepted standard of living. 

    To help identify this, Michael Walsh asks:

    • Do you often drink more than you intended and feel bad afterward?
    • Do you silently fret about your drinking?
    • Do you get defensive about your use of alcohol?
    • Can you stop drinking, but find it hard to stay stopped?
    • Are there areas of your life that might improve without alcohol?

    Heather Lowe, founder of Ditch the Drink, writes: “Before an organization makes sober-friendly changes, its leaders should question their own beliefs 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.”

    But there are two pieces of encouraging news: Younger people are drinking less, and non-alcoholic beverages are enjoying a boom.

    Surveys suggest that millennials are drinking at least 10 per cent less than baby boomers. The sober movement’s prevalence on social media has appealed to young people, especially women. Sober-curious influencers post on TikTok and Instagram detailing how they’ve stepped away from drinking, and they even partner with brands selling alternatives to booze. In a 2021 survey by Statistics Canada, around one in five Canadians said they’ve been drinking less than they did pre-pandemic, and among those aged 15 to 29, one-third had decreased their consumption.

    So what’s behind sober curious? Millie Gooch, the founder of Sober Girl Society, says that “sober curious” is a purposefully ambiguous phrase, as the movement includes all kinds of grey-area drinkers. Gooch says that for some people, being sober curious means being more mindful of when and why they’re drinking. Some sober-curious folks cut down on drinking or abstain for extended periods, while others stop drinking completely.

    This trend is reflected in the dramatic rise of non-alcoholic beverages, from beer to wine to spirits. In 2022, sales of no- and low-alcohol beverages grew by more than seven per cent in volume across 10 key global markets, surpassing US$11 billion in market value. This is up from US$8 billion in 2018, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis.

    “Ten years ago, you would go to a company event with a non-alcoholic beer, and people would ask you if you’re pregnant or sick,” said Nicolas Gagnon-Oosterwaal, president of the Montreal-based non-alcoholic brewery Sober Carpenter. “But now, it’s completely the other way around.”

    In time, as a younger, less alcohol-obsessed generation takes over the workplace, businesses may begin paring back the company-sponsored beer for late-afternoon brainstorming or holiday party booze-ups. Until then, experts like Michael Walsh suggest companies actively support the abstainers and those who are just seeking to cut back, and offer non-judgmental help for those with a problem.

    Sober Cellar

    Catering to the increasing demand for non-alcoholic beverages, the popular Market Garden in Vic West has created an elegant “cellar” featuring non-alcoholic beer, wines and spirits. Local features include Phillips’ iOTA beers, Sheringham Distillery’s Lumette! spirits and ONES+ wines from Summerland, all of which are under one per cent alcohol. They’re all good choices to order at dinner with the boss when you want to stay sharp.