Creating a Sober-Friendly Workplace: Supporting Employees with Substance Use

Being sober in a world fueled by wine and whiskey is hard enough, but navigating sobriety at work is another challenge sober people face regularly.

Employers play a significant role in supporting their employee’s well-being. When employees feel cared about and treated well, they do better work and have more overall job satisfaction.

Not to mention, it’s good for business too. Industry reports show a $1.47 return for every dollar employers spend on corporate wellness initiatives.

So how can employers create a sober-friendly workplace? We’ll get to that in a minute, but first…

What’s it like to be Sober at Work?

A new email pops up on your screen. As you read the subject line, you sink into your chair and begin to sweat.

“Join us for happy hour after work today!”

You just quit drinking and haven’t told any of your coworkers yet. On the one hand, it’s none of their business. On the other hand, they’re the people you’ve been hanging out with for the past seven years while working here.

So, what do you do?

Well, you have two choices:

  1. Find another to skip happy hour this time, and hope you have the courage to tell them about your decision to cut booze before the next workplace social event.
  2. Begrudgingly go to happy hour and tell them you’ll have water because you’re “on antibiotics right now,” “have to drive home,” “trying to be healthier,” or whatever lame excuse you can think of while the server stares at you waiting for your drink order.

No one wants to be judged by others, especially in the workplace, where you strive to be respected and liked by your peers. This is why it’s so crucial for businesses to have a welcoming and inclusive culture.

It’s scary to talk about not drinking. It can seem like literally everyone is catching a buzz to unwind after work, and it doesn’t feel “normal” to not drink in today’s boozy culture.

The reality is: there are so many options for social gatherings with your coworkers. Happy hours can be at bars offering non-alcoholic beverages and where mocktails have their own spot on the menu.

A supportive work environment can make all the difference, and it’s your responsibility as an employer to ensure your employees feel comfortable and welcomed at work, in and outside the office.

Understanding substance use and its impact

Substance use and other mental health struggles come with a stigma. It’s not easy dealing with a drug or alcohol problem, and the feelings of shame and regret can get overwhelming.

The feeling of judgment by others can send some people directly back to using drugs or alcohol, creating more problems for them and their ability to do great work.

And substance abuse doesn’t discriminate. You can’t simply look at someone and know they’re struggling. But there are some signs to look for:

  • Increased irritability
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • More frequent sick days
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene
  • Frequent sickness not due to illness
  • Withdrawing from hobbies or social activities
  • Isolating or avoiding friends, family, or coworkers
  • Neglecting responsibilities or obligations
  • Extreme and rapid shifts in mood
  • Sudden changes in appearance
  • Work performance decline
  • Struggling with finances

These signs don’t necessarily mean your employee is using drugs or having problems with alcohol, but if you suspect they’re struggling with something, approach them with empathy and encourage them to seek help.

The Role of Leadership and Company Culture

Leadership is like parenting. You should recognize and praise the good behaviors you want to see more of. And effective leadership means demonstrating those desired behaviors too.

When company leaders model inclusive, supportive, and wellness-inspired behavior, it sets a precedent for their employees to follow suit. Really, everyone wins.

Support your managers by providing resources to foster a positive environment and champion their teams. This will create a sense of responsibility and accountability for the well-being of their fellow employees and boost team engagement.

How to Create a Sober-Friendly Workplace

As a company leader, you should prioritize creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace, which also means a sober-friendly one. This will positively influence the company culture and enhance your company’s reputation.

Additionally, employees do better work when they feel cared about, which means fewer safety incidents or HR interventions and less work for you in the long run.

Implement a comprehensive substance use policy

Review and assess your current workplace policies to ensure they cover all employees—and address confidentiality and non-discrimination practices.

Next, develop clear guidelines and list expectations regarding substance use in the workplace. And don’t forget to communicate policy changes to your employees.

Provide education and awareness

People don’t know what they don’t know. It’s up to you to ensure proper educational opportunities are being presented to your employees. Offer workshops to train your staff on the harmful impacts of substance abuse and what they can do if they need help.

Share local and national resources for your employees, including where they can get mental health care and hotline numbers.

Encourage employees to share their stories of overcoming substance use challenges if they feel comfortable. Their success can make others suffering in silence feel less alone.

Promote a supportive work environment

Many people are scared of punishment or being “outed” at work. Foster an open-door policy with other leaders at your company. Be clear that you’ll provide non-judgmental support to employees who need it.

Train managers to recognize signs of substance abuse and provide ways they can offer assistance if they suspect someone is struggling. Emphasize the importance of approaching people with kindness and empathy, not judgment.

Show your staff you care about them and their well-being. Take time out of your busy workday to get to know them. And offer a listening ear if they need to talk.

Offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

Some companies provide their employees with confidential counseling services at low or no cost. If yours does, ensure your employees are aware of it and know how to access the services.

Collaborate and build relationships with external professionals and organizations. Know how to connect your employees with specialized treatment options or mental health care services if needed.

Organize substance-free social activities

Promote team bonding through events not centered around drinking. Some less-boozy ideas for your workgroup:

  • Karaoke night
  • Escape room
  • Cooking class
  • Outdoor picnics
  • Themed potlucks
  • Local cultural events
  • Mindfulness workshops
  • Craft workshops
  • Charity events
  • Movie night
  • Art exhibits
  • Trivia night
  • Open mic

How Do You Know How You’re Doing?

Every business has a different idea of what “success” means for their company. Measuring success and focusing on continuous improvement should be integral to any well-run business.

By consistently seeking feedback, you show your dedication to fostering a supportive workplace and creating a culture of continuous improvement where employees feel heard, respected, and empowered to contribute to positive change in the company.

Gather feedback from employees

Surveys and focus groups provide a structured and comprehensive assessment to determine how you’re doing as an employer.

Consider gathering measurable data and using qualitative questions to allow your staff to give their thoughts without fear of repercussion. Anonymous open-ended questions encourage transparency and promote a safe space to share concerns.

Focus groups can facilitate interactive discussions among employees. Peer conversations allow a deeper dive into specific topics to gather information about your employees’ experiences.

Set measurable goals and benchmarks

Consider what you want the future of your company to look like. What does your sober-friendly work environment look like? Some ideas for what to measure:

  • Retention rates over time
  • Training program completion
  • Wellness program participation
  • Engagement in social activities
  • Peer support utilization
  • Policy compliance

Make necessary adjustments

Creating a sober-friendly workplace involves looking at your company’s current engagement and well-being initiatives and pinpointing areas where you can improve.

Use employee feedback to change or enhance your processes. Remember, it’s OK not to get it right the first time. The most crucial part is listening to feedback with an open mind and being willing to adjust as needed. No one is perfect!

Resources for Employers and Employees

Find local organizations to share with your team. There are also various national resources available to make your workplace sober-friendly. Use these to get started:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Drug-Free Workplace Employer Resources

U.S. Department of Labor

Recovery-Ready Workplace Resource Hub

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Mental Health Conditions: Resources for Job Seekers, Employees, and Employers

Disability-Related Resources for Employers

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Workplace Health Promotion

Drug Overdose Resource Center

National Safety Council (NSC)

Drugs at Work: What Employers Need to Know

Promote Employee Mental Health and Wellbeing

It’s best to be proactive and create a workplace that can positively impact employees’ lives and improve company success.

Cultivating an inclusive and supportive workplace ensures your employees feel a sense of belonging and security, which elevates your business and increases your chance of overall success as a team.

If you or one of your employees is struggling with mental health or substance use, help is not far away. At Recovery Unplugged, we offer in-person and virtual treatment options to help people heal wherever they are.

Call our admissions team to discuss your options today at 1 (855) 954-1194.


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