Opinion

Is Being Sober Hurting My Career?

Is Sobriety Ruining My Career?

Drinking alcohol makes us more creative at work, a new study has found. Journalist Amy Molloy, 31 – now teetotal for six years – asks if we need to hit the bottle to get ahead...

As my boss pointed the end of a champagne bottle in my direction, I held out my plastic cup and tried to look grateful. Around the office, my colleagues were excited to celebrate a company victory and have a reason to drink instead of working. Nobody noticed as I reached under my desk and poured the contents of my cup into the bin, praying it wouldn’t leave a puddle on the carpet.

After six years sober, you’d think I’d be used to being a non-drinker among drinkers – and I am, in most situations. At birthdays, weddings and New Year’s Eve celebrations, I am comfortable being the only clear head in the crowd. Yet, there is one area of my life where I still feel the need to hide my sobriety; in professional circumstances, with business acquaintances.

At networking events I order a lemonade ‘in a short glass’ so people assume it’s vodka. At client parties, I accept the free sparkling wine, then tip out a little liquid every time I go to the toilet. I’ve perfected the ‘fake gulp’, holding a glass to my lips and pretending to drink from it.

It feels easier than explaining the truth – that I’ve been sober since I was 25, after another drunken argument and another guilt-ridden hangover. At the time, I was a junior reporter and too early in my career to be asked to corporate lunches and important parties. I was too busy worrying about how I’d cope being ‘dry’ on first dates to think about the career implications.

When people discover you don’t drink, they make assumptions – you’re not a team player, you’re unfriendly or judgemental. Even that you lack imagination. A recent study from the University of Illinois claimed that ‘moderate alcohol intoxication’ (a blood alcohol level of .075%) made participants more capable of completing creative tasks. I found out about this research when a co-worker tweeted it (#officeProsecco). And it rang true – I remembered a former boss, who knew very well that I was teetotal, telling me to go home and ‘get tipsy’ before I started work on a project. He suggested it would ‘get your ideas flowing’.

There is no doubt that quitting drinking was good for my health (I lost weight, my skin improved, I had more energy) but I’ve started to wonder if it could actually be harmful to my career. Especially when it comes to impressing bosses and bonding with my co-workers.

Drinking in the office used to be an elitist activity of the past – think Mad Men and cocktail hours for men with grand corner offices. But ‘al desko drinking’, as it’s been dubbed, is becoming increasingly common. The coolest tech start-ups have beer kegs in their offices (there is a viral video of Mark Zuckerberg celebrating Facebook’s three millionth user with a keg party) and an increasing number of office spaces boast ‘beer on tap’ in the common areas. The recruitment website GlassDoor recently published a list of 13 British companies which give away free beer as a perk to their employees. US company Yelp.com made headlines a few years ago for installing a beer tap that workers could help themselves from at any time. The catch being they had to input their staff number to turn it on (meaning bosses could track how many pints they drank).

What are the benefits for bosses? Staff are likely to stay in the office longer and it creates a sense of camaraderie among co-workers. But it also ostracises people like me – the non-drinkers – who don’t partake in the merriment.

I once visited a large PR agency which had an impressive bar on one floor of their office, staffed by full-time bartenders. The publicist I was meeting showed it off to me proudly and then looked offended when I ordered a soda water. But that wasn’t as bad as the event organiser who accidentally CC’d me into an email about a cocktail party, writing, ‘Shall we invite Amy Molloy or not bother – she doesn’t drink!!!!’ Did my sobriety deserve so many exclamation marks?

Over the years, I’ve developed tactics to feel part of the party. In bars, I never order a bottle of water because it screams ‘judgy health nut’ (the equivalent of taking a green smoothie to a house party). At events, I often bring a GoPro camera to ‘capture the fun’, when really I just want something in my hand other than a champagne glass. It’s also amazing how popular you become when people realise you’re a designated driver and happy to give them a lift home. And with work, I always push for breakfast meetings so drinking is not even an issue.

I still feel left out when I see Instagram photos of colleagues with their arms draped around each other in drunken unity. But I remind myself that real relationships – both personal and professional – sometimes take time to develop. It’s a little like my love life. Although drunk me was probably a far more memorable date, the guys I met in bars never stuck around for long the next morning. My fiancé, on the other hand, admits he didn’t kiss me on our first date because I was sober, and he was too nervous. But our relationship is more enduring than any of my drunken flings.

I may not be the wildest employee but I hope I have built a reputation as genuine, dependable and reliable. Those aren’t personality traits I ever found at the bottom of a bottle. I genuinely admire anyone who can be charming, funny and articulate when they’re drinking – and still go to work the next day without throwing up on the train. But that isn’t me. I was always an insecure, emotionally needy drinker, who veered between arrogant euphoria and crushing self-doubt. So however much I worry that sobriety is holding me back in my work life, I also know if you met that woman, you wouldn’t give her your business card.

Do you think you need to drink to get ahead at work? Let us know your views at feedback@ graziamagazine.co.uk. Follow Amy on Twitter @amy_molloy

Grazia magazine cover