During a normal 40-hour workweek, most people spend around half their waking hours at work. And most people don’t want to bring the challenges of their personal lives to the job. That’s fine — but people in addiction recovery have to commit to it 24/7. Facing stigma, shame and triggers related to their situation at work can make both their job and their recovery a grind.
Many workplaces are becoming friendlier and more accommodating to employees who are overcoming addiction. Many are not. Either way, as a colleague of people who may be in recovery, you can do your own part to be supportive. You can become a sober ally.
Becoming a Sober Ally at Work: The Entry-Level Stuff
Work comes with demands, expectations and stressors for everyone, but sober allies can help the whole team perform at their best and keep a person in recovery from feeling alienated, isolated and emotionally depleted. All you need to start being an ally is basic compassion.
Sober allies in any space offer kindness and open-mindedness to a friend who is overcoming addiction. More generally, they help create an atmosphere where people in recovery feel comfortable and dignified. (Read more about sober allyship.)
Whether you’re already acquainted or you’re still getting to know your sober colleagues, showing that you care for their success in recovery can go a long way.
A strong ally has a few important qualities and characteristics:
- Willingness to learn and understand the lives and experiences of those you support
- Being an active, available and nonjudgmental listener
- Advocating for your sober friends, or anyone who may be in recovery in your work environment (you won’t always know who is)
- Encouraging and honoring their commitment to sobriety
If you have a friend at work you know is in recovery, your willingness to understand and connect with them, whatever their past struggles, supports their commitment to growth.
Seeing a colleague as a valuable individual worthy of empathy lifts that one person up, which is no small thing. But your leadership and the example you set can shift your workplace dynamics in a bigger way and draw more attention to what a healthy work environment looks like.
How a Sober Ally Lifts Up People in Recovery and Spreads a Vibe of Positivity
Connection, among friends, partners and even just simpatico acquaintances, is a key part of someone’s healing process, be it from mental health challenges or addiction. Motivation, encouragement, feeling valued and esteemed — it all flows from connection.
Motivation and Inspiration
Supportive connections remind someone that they are valued for who they are, regardless of their challenges. When you share your genuine compassion and concern for your colleagues, your kindness will encourage them during what may be a time of transition and uncertainty.
Healthy friendships offer motivation and inspiration to a person who is seeking to make positive changes, and that helps them keep their faith in those positive changes. On the other hand, when a person feels misunderstood and judged, it is easier for them to slip into feelings of shame and sadness; that can be a dangerous place to be, emotionally, for someone in recovery.
Being a Trusted Part of a Support System
Most people in recovery have, or are in the process of establishing, multiple important relationships that form their support system. But they don’t share an office with them.
As a sober ally in the workplace, you can offer your colleague support, even if it’s just to let them know you’re available to lend an ear. You can also be mindful of potential triggers for the person at work, including alcohol at work events, conversations about substance use or intrusive comments from other coworkers.
Helping your colleague come up with ways to manage or avoid these triggers will help them get through tough moments. You can, for example, offer to leave a work function with them, or redirect an uncomfortable conversation.
Slashing the Stigma Around Addiction and Recovery
Supporting a person in their recovery process brings their humanity to the forefront. Don’t judge and isolate a person because of their past, and let other coworkers know that derogatory attitudes and hostile comments need to be checked at the door. Addiction is a personal and complex experience, and stigma only forces people who have gone through it to keep it to themselves and try to handle recovery alone.
We are social creatures — even at work! — and we need to have a healthy social atmosphere to thrive and give us space to heal from any kind of setback. A genuine sober ally will see beyond the challenges and stigma in order to understand their friend in recovery as a unique and worthy individual.
Give Yourself a Promotion: Become a Superstar Sober Ally
You can level up your support on an individual level, if your sober friend(s) want it, and also become a champion of recovery-friendly attitudes and practices in the broader work environment. As with anything that requires emotional commitment, don’t forget to take care of yourself in the process.
For Your Sober Work Friends
On a person-to-person level, for your sober friends, you can …
- Get to know their sobriety goals and be mindful of the best ways to support their individual journeys
- Educate yourself on addiction recovery: Read about the psychological and social elements of it, or talk to a mental health pro to learn more
- Avoid triggering or enabling behaviors. Steer clear of using substances while you’re around friends in recovery unless you’ve discussed it with them
- Consider sober activities outside of work that you can attend together, or host some
- Set boundaries that help you avoid burnout so that you can continue to offer genuine support
In the Workplace
Be a leader on this issue! You can influence a more positive work environment. With all of the stigma that people in recovery often face, your role as a sober ally will help break down barriers around addiction, mental health and recovery.
- Amplify the voices of those in recovery
- Use empowering language, and understand which terms and stereotypes can be stigmatizing and harmful
- Discuss with the appropriate person how your company might implement a recovery-friendly workplace that accommodates the needs of anyone in recovery and educates the workforce about recovery
By being a sober ally at work, you’ll remind your friends in recovery that they can live productive, fun and fulfilling lives. That will encourage them to stay committed to their recovery journeys.
Maybe addiction has impacted you personally, maybe it hasn’t. But anyone can impact recovery, including you. You’ll be surprised how much of a difference you’ll make just by showing up for your people.
Don Fertman, longtime Subway exec, writes about a pivotal moment in his 40 years of sobriety: what happened after he went public about his recovery on "Undercover Boss."
Four ways to make your holiday party more inviting to employees who are in recovery, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
The "Mad Men" era may be over, but some workplaces can still be particularly challenging in recovery. Some pointers on putting your sobriety first.
Doing college sans drugs and alcohol doesn't have to be a struggle. Some tips on making bonds that'll last and having a blast.
Also called a "recovery-ready workplace," it's a winning proposition for high-quality employers and employees alike.
Recovery residences, specialized counselors, sub-free tailgates and … sober study abroad?! The sober college experience today is better than ever. These universities are showing the way.
And how can I create one at my company? Here's why and how implementing a work-life recovery program pays off.
In a perfect world, everyone would admire the feat of recovery — or at least mind their own business. Until then, here are a few tips for dealing with bad attitudes.