A well-crafted mocktail can be a powerful tool for inclusion and belonging at work, according to experts in the substance use disorder industry.
With winter holidays on the horizon, people teams are sketching out plans for annual holiday parties. Professionals in the field are coming to HR leads with a key plea: Don’t forget sober and sober-curious talent in your party plans.
One way to honor an employee’s decision not to drink? Offer non-alcoholic beverages along with the holiday cocktails — and present the mocktails with the same panache. This is what Ashley Loeb Blassingame, CPO and co-founder of telehealth recovery company Lionrock, said she has been recommending to employers. Beyond her career in health care, her approach is informed by her own experience as a sober person for more than 16 years.
Regarding parties, she told HR Dive, “It’s not that I go to them and want a drink. It's that I go to them and there’s an open bar, but I have to pay for a bottle or glass of water… It's very conspicuous.”
The not-so-covert exchange of money or the ostentatious flash of a water bottle puts employees in a position to have to out themselves. If HR teams want to support this community, Blassingame said, they should offer more options than water.
If someone orders a mocktail, they should be able to consume it in a glass where it looks like alcohol. “They can decide to be inconspicuous if they want. They can still participate in the activities and not have the [sobriety] conversation if they don't want to.”
Regarding talent in recovery, Marc Turner, interim CEO of Gateway Foundation, a substance abuse treatment center, told HR Dive that employers should work to establish a culture where people don’t feel pressured to drink. As a whole, the U.S. has a culture that encourages binge and excess drinking, Turner explained; he pointed to a statistic from the National Institutes of Health that suggests that only one in 10 people who meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder seek help.
The nuanced conversation about alcohol abuse includes more people than those actively seeking help for their addiction. The discourse also includes “sober-curious” workers; Turner defined “sober-curious” people as individuals who are “exploring a change in their relationship with alcohol” and may not yet have identified their usage as a problem. Under this umbrella, too, are people concerned about alcohol’s “empty calories” or its interactions with prescription medication, he explained.
“If you've got a party full of people, there is going to be a group of people who have this disease. There may be a small group of people who have received treatment and are in recovery. There may also be people, pre-treatment services, who are going to be acting on the disease,” Turner said.
He broke it down further, saying, “Once the disease develops, people may not be able to stop their consumption. Employers may want to figure out how to ensure that people are not being overserved.”
It’s worth noting that mocktails increasingly are having their culinary moment, beyond accommodating people in recovery. At the top of 2022, Bloomberg analyst and Vanderbilt University journalism professor Amanda Little observed the rise of near beers, zero-proof spirits and the like, noting increased U.S. participation in Dry January 2022 and non-alcoholic beverage sales rising 33% the year prior.
Little also observed that sobriety doesn’t factor into the branding or advertising of these goods at all. Health concerns, as well as ethical and environmental ones, are the contributing factors Little said contribute to the mocktail’s status as “100 proof millennial market gold.”
At the end of the day, to foster more inclusion in the workplace, business leaders should be engaging in sobriety discourse in winter, but also spring, summer and fall, experts told HR Dive. Turner suggested that employers create greater employee access to such healthcare. It should be top of mind, he said, because a previously unknown alcohol use disorder can “become evident at a holiday event.”
In turn, Blassingame explained how the mere act of an employer paying for a presenter who is open about their healing process recovery could speak volumes. By putting dollars behind a speaker on leadership, on DEI, on mental health, on recovery or anything else, the C-suite signals what topics or causes are most important to them. Her two recommendations are to either book leadership speakers who are openly sober and fold that narrative into their talk, or book a professional specifically to speak about sobriety.
Acknowledging a level of privilege in the ability to do so, Blassingame suggested company execs talk about their own recovery, if applicable. “If you can do it — if you are in recovery and have been for a long time, disclosing that is really helpful to breaking down stigma,” she said.
She nodded to the leader of Soberforce, Salesforce's sobriety ERG, as prime example. By being open, Blassingame said, leaders show they are unashamed of their journey and that they believe in hiring talent on their healing journey. Maybe their staff don’t live with a substance use disorder now, but they might struggle with it, eventually.
“Knowing that their supervisor or someone in the company was able to get sober while working — that there's an experience out there similar to theirs — they might reach out earlier,” she said, “instead of trying to hide it.”