More professionals are wanting to call time on alcohol’s connection with work, as surveys show, with more people demanding more meaningful work benefits, like flexible working and enhanced parental leave, over free company events.
For the latest in our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we spoke to a chief strategy officer who has been sober for seven years after establishing her career in an alcohol-soaked mid-2000s Silicon Valley. She reflects on the inclusive, pro-choice company culture (regarding drinking) she’s helped build within her current employer, compared with the pressure at previous workplaces to constantly drink.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been sober for seven years. How do you navigate work events where alcohol is present?
I just got back from my first work trip since March 2020. Nobody cared or noticed if you wanted to drink or not. I’ve worked at places where we’d go to happy hour, and I’d say, ‘I’m sober – I’d love a water.’ And people would say things like, ‘I can’t wait until you’re done being sober, so we can party together.’ At a different stage in my journey, that could be off-putting, to the point where I would decide to have a drink.
During this latest trip, some people decided to go to a bar, where there was live music and dancing. There was no pressure to go. I drank sparkling water with a colleague. We were enjoying ourselves, watching the dancing, and having a great conversation. Those are things I pay attention to, and a company culture I chose on purpose — because I don’t have to prove my value by drinking.
How is that different from environments you’ve worked in previously?
They put me in a position where I had to justify why I wasn’t drinking. When I started to work in Silicon Valley, I was so surprised at how embedded alcohol was in the culture. Someone would always have a bottle of whiskey in their drawer. If there was an important decision to be made, we would grab a drink after work to talk through it. I found myself drinking daily, with half of that related to work.
What effects did alcohol have on you and the people around you?
When I’m drinking, I’m not as smart or as sharp. My ideas aren’t as good. I don’t express myself as clearly. I’m a poor listener. I don’t treat people as well as I want to.
I worked for an employer once, who on Friday mornings, would serve orange juice with champagne and coffee with Bailey’s Irish Cream. At all-hands meetings, there would be an open bar. At company parties, executives would go around with trays of shots. It was a lot of pressure. It was so severe I took one of the shots off the tray and tossed it over my shoulder. Everyone was so intoxicated, they didn’t notice.
In American culture, maybe in Silicon Valley culture, or tech startup culture, there is an assumed advantage to combining your personal and professional lives. Maybe that’s one of the reasons drinking is so pervasive. An employee wakes up in the morning, goes to work, after work socializes with people from work, continues to talk about work, continues to think about work, and builds out their entire world around that workplace. I think these types of events do foster that way of being.
What eventually made you stop drinking?
It was something I struggled with, even after speaking with my therapist and doctor. I had tried to be sober for 30 days. It went great, but as soon as the 30 days were up, I went back. I wasn’t able to really make it happen until I had a good reason, and that was getting pregnant. I actually wonder to myself, how it would have happened for me if it hadn’t been because of pregnancy.
How did not drinking make you feel?
When people speak to me, I’m capable of listening. I’m capable of remembering. I’m capable of accessing my intellectual qualities at all times. I’m capable of expressing myself in exactly the way that I want to. I’m capable of upholding my boundaries.
You now work for a remote-first company where drinking is not an inherent part of the culture (although people can choose to). What difference does this make?
If we can create inclusive environments where there’s not an expectation to be drinking, maybe you’re getting the best out of your team. Maybe you’re allowing people to feel comfortable and to access the best parts of themselves. I think remote work certainly has changed that. Yes, there are a lot of Zoom happy hours, but there are also so many other things. People’s kids and dogs are on Zoom. People are Zooming in from their backyards. We’ve been able to do things like yoga, cookie decorating and juggling lessons and just be a bit creative. It doesn’t take an enormous amount of innovation.
How have you helped intentionally create that culture?
There’s something to be said about me being an executive at the company. I’m very open about my sobriety. I say it proudly and others hear it. We want to cultivate connections between folks, and yes, there are the icebreakers and the meditation sessions, but there’s also the decision on a Friday afternoon to just go and do something you love that has nothing to do with work — then on Monday, tell us about it. That’s where our team members are going to get and cultivate positive energy, which we believe is naturally going to translate into higher performance and better collaboration.