What to do when the company drinking culture is ruining your health

Though not the first to illustrate the free-flowing attitude toward boozing in offices, Mad Men arguably made the most impact in showing just how much alcohol can be utilized in workplace settings. Many decades later, and much of networking remains centered around happy hours and scotch sippings, where clinking glasses is often better respected than shaking hands. As more startups throw their bright ideas into emerging markets, encouraging a more relaxed approach to working — beer taps in office kitchens, bar carts that circulate at 5 p.m. and wine nights with colleagues are the norm.

Like most vices, consuming alcohol in moderation is a healthy approach, but if the attitude toward drinking in your office has you feeling less than stellar, you might struggle with how to fit in with your corporate culture. Especially if your manager or the CEO of your company is a heavy drinker, shying away from another round within their sight may make you worry about your ability to excel in your position. After all, work/life balance doesn’t just reference to spending quality time with your family and friends, but also navigating the teeter-tot between working hard and practicing self-care.

Here, a guide to navigating this tricky, boozy situation and keeping both your career and your health intact:

How alcohol impacts your work performance

Though it’s easy to see the so-called positives to having another (and another) round with your boss, as they slur and sing your praises, what about the pitfalls of liquor? It’s fun going down, but when you overdo it on the shots and the nights out bumping elbows with clients and fellow colleagues, you may cause damage to your career, according to workplace expert Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D.

“Drinking too much alcohol impacts concentration, decision making, weight, sleep, mood and overall productivity,” she explains. “It can lead to impulsive behavior that is inappropriate — or even dangerous — in the work setting. It can negatively impact the way that the brain, heart, and liver function. And, it can lead to depression and other mental health issues.”

While some of these conditions are extreme and develop over years, if you notice yourself nodding off during meetings, constantly popping Advil to ward off a hangover, or coming in later and later into the office because you’re exhausted, your body may be giving you desperate signals that it’s dehydrated and needs a break. Taking one though? Tougher than it should be, depending on the attitude of your colleagues who may pressure you into half-off margaritas or make you feel left out of the crew if you pass. Luckily, these tactics prove successful for many professionals.

Order a drink, but sip it

The next time you’re at a dinner with your manager, co-workers or clients and it’s time to order alcohol, don’t hop on a soapbox about how you’re cutting back, which can feel a tad judgmental or off-putting. Instead, Hakim suggests you go with the flow and order a drink that you can sip instead of shoot. This may be a glass of red wine or a cocktail (sans ice), whatever makes you feel the most comfortable. The goal here is to participate in the networking or relationship-building feast, but without attempting to keep up with everyone drink for drink. When the waiter comes around, do your best to excuse yourself to the restroom or engage in a conversation with someone else, so he skips over you for a refill.

Order a virgin drink that looks like booze

After finally landing a deal you worked for months to secure, your whole team might want to waste away the relief at your local watering hole. You don’t want to miss out on the celebration, but you’re also challenging yourself to go a week without drinking? What do you do? Hakim says to kick it back to your pre-drinking-age days and go with a virgin drink. This gives the illusion that you’re downing a gin and tonic or a rum and coke, without actually consuming the calories or the alcohol. When you’re ordering, ask the bartender if he’ll continuously refill yours with water (or Pepsi — whatever you’re having) but keep it in the same style cup as the alcoholic beverages. This might require a bit more planning ahead, by arriving early and having a quiet chat, Hakim warns, but will be well worth it to avoid binge boozing.

Propose a ‘dry’ month to the team

As every professional knows, having the right people in your corner and working toward the same goal paves the way to success and growth. Why not apply the same principles to creating a killer presentation or closing a deal to making it your mission to health-a-fy your office? While Hakim says there’s nothing wrong with simply saying ‘no’ to a night out, when you encourage others to join you on a 30-day alcohol-free challenge, you might incite change within your office. Or at the very least, shift the attention toward other ways to connect, instead of splitting pitchers.