Will Your Holiday Office Party Enable Problem Drinking?

It’s that time of the year again. Holiday Parties. Spiked eggnog and lampshades against the backdrop of a legal profession replete with problem drinkers.

Almost two years after the groundbreaking study, alcohol is still ingrained in our culture.  Booze centered conferences. Top-shelf stocked offices. At one event, I saw high-level lawyers so intoxicated, they had trouble walking.  I shudder to think what those holiday parties will look like.

Things, however, do appear to be changing for the better. There is a conversation. Many firms have signed on to the ABA well-being pledge. I have no doubt they will be taking a balanced approach to their holiday events.

You however, don’t need a pledge to throw a great party that both celebrates the season and is not wrapped around booze.  There, of course, is nothing wrong with having alcohol at an event. We are not a profession of teetotalers.  It is all about balance and boundaries.

Provide enough non-alcoholic options.  Encourage an atmosphere that is inclusive for those who choose to not drink.  Put a limit on the amount of alcohol available. Limit the number of drinks per person.  Have a plan in place to ensure that anyone who does have one too many, does not put anyone else at risk.  Have a confidential and compassionate plan to deal with such issues while also protecting the firm from a risk management standpoint.

Keep in mind that for someone in recovery or struggling to find sobriety, the pressure of alcohol-focused gatherings can be intense and isolating. This can be a big issue for younger lawyers who tend to be more social in general and who may feel pressured to attend.  We know from the recent ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study that the millennial age group is at a higher problem drinking risk.

Michelle is a lawyer practicing at a small firm in Seattle. Here is what she has to say.

“For someone in recovery, the holiday party scene can be a source of professional and personal anxiety. Everyone has a bash.  Attendance is critical to maintaining goodwill at your own firm.

I had to both network and protect my privacy.  I would explain that I was recovering from a cold or on other medication. That meant I couldn’t try the spiked eggnog or holiday cocktails. This led to feelings of shame. It further compounded my stress, and almost led to relapse on more than one occasion.

Upon reflection, the holiday parties I attended were not scheduled for the benefit of the staff or the firm team.  They were events to celebrate the shareholders’ success.  We were not given the impression that sobriety and mental health was a firm priority. A majority of the attorneys drank to excess without firm safeguards.

I realized that I needed to own my recovery. Making excuses about why I was not drinking was unhealthy for me.  I stopped making them and began to say that I do not drink. I then noticed that people were not paying attention to what I was or was not doing. I saw that while we were the minority, there were others who did not drink. My fear of questions about it or about my recovery never came to fruition. I became more comfortable and empowered in my sobriety while keeping up social obligations.

I recommend that anyone in recovery be familiar with their drinking triggers and level of comfortability in being able to say “no thanks” to alcohol (or here in Washington, to marijuana edibles, etc.). Do your best to choose events where you know you will have the support of friends or colleagues who know about your recovery.  If you’re in a 12-step program, talk with your sponsor before going. Have a plan in place specific to your situation to deal with the stress and temptation you may feel.

I also recommend that partners or staff in charge of planning, make sure there is equal access to non-alcoholic beverages. If there is a holiday punch or eggnog, there should be the same non-alcoholic option.”

If you are in recovery and worried about the pressure holiday parties bring, have a plan going in.  Didn’t make it through the holiday circuit sober?  Hiccups happen.  Talk to your lawyers Assistance Program. Does your area have a “Lawyers Helping Lawyers” group?  Your law firm may have an Employees Assistance Program.  Talk to someone.

Have a safe and happy holiday season!