Brad Hopkins, Director at KPMG’s Infrastructure & Projects Group, reflects on the corporate culture of drinking and his three months without alcohol.
Personal drinking habits are an unusual topic to kick around with colleagues. The magic little liquid holds a cherished position in corporate Australia – its ubiquity and impact on our work environment is rarely spoken of.
I have never been regarded as a big drinker and I never thought of myself as having a ‘drinking problem’. Despite this, I was challenged by a friend to tackle three months without alcohol and I finished this stint in May 2017. Now I’ve decided to do another three months, and I’d like to encourage others to have a go. My motivation is old fashioned curiosity – the original stint was so surprising that I’d like to see what might happen next.
So, what can you expect if you join the experiment? I am sure it will vary dramatically by person but I have described a few of my own surprises below.
I had quit alcohol for a month once before but was persuaded to try a longer three-month stint this time around. The longer break was recommended by a friend, Chris Raine, of Hello Sunday Morning. Hello Sunday Morning’s mission is to provide tools and support to help people assess their relationship with alcohol. The thing I like about this organisation is that they don’t tell you how much you should drink. Instead, they help you learn something about yourself and your habits.
For me the first month was largely occupied with self-congratulations and predictable outcomes. I lost some weight and saved some money. Far more interesting things happened in months two and three. With time my concentration began to improve, my stress levels declined and my sleep improved.
Why did these changes take so long to materialise? Research on the impact of long-term, low-level drinking is patchy at best. Some theorise that alcohol, even a small amount of alcohol, has a neurological impact which alters our brain long after any hangover abates. Recent studies show that drinking small amounts of alcohol (e.g. 14 units per week) over extended periods is linked to changes in the brain and poorer long-term cognitive function.
Although the research is scant, I find it hard to imagine something that has such a significant impact on our brain in the short term (drunkenness) not having some cumulative impact (concentration, sleep, mood) in the longer term. These longer-term impacts could take time to abate once we stop drinking.
For the first two weeks of my sobriety it felt like corporate Australia was awash with booze. I counted no less than twelve work-related drinking opportunities across fourteen days. Friday afternoon drinks, lunches celebrating arrivals, departures and successes, boozy nights out with clients or colleagues. In the corporate world, all of these events provide shared experiences that strengthen our relationships. Alcohol helps people bond at a fairly low cost compared to more thoughtful alternatives.
As I talked more about my sobriety, people shared stories about their own drinking habits and I discovered a lot of non-drinkers and highly disciplined drinkers lurking in the shadows of corporate Australia. Many of these “well considered” drinkers were highly successful business leaders and entrepreneurs who had turned away from alcohol for a variety of reasons.
Some of these people had well-evolved strategies for avoiding alcohol without being conspicuous about their abstinence. They would accept a drink and hold it as a prop, do the rounds at functions and exit early or restrict themselves to half a glass of wine nursed through an evening. These are the tips they do not teach you at graduate training.
In the second month my concentration began to improve dramatically and the modern curse called “distraction” finally departed. Despite digging through the research, I haven’t been able to uncover why my concentration levels jumped. The cause is probably multi-faceted and I suspect that sleep is a big part of it. Alcohol is a notorious disrupter of sleep – although it helps us drift into sleep, the sleep is less restorative and more prone to interruption. My sleep gradually improved until I was getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night in the second month.
Frankly, the reasons didn’t concern me as much as the outcome – I was delighted with my new cognitive superpowers. I had one of the most productive and successful periods of my career.
The modern workplace revolves around our ability to think and interact with other human beings. Our reality as modern workers is that our mood directs much of our approach to people and problems. Mood can skew how you approach somebody, or indeed whether you bother approaching them at all. Whether you are calling on your emotional intelligence or solving a problem, having some control over your mood seems important today.
Any level of hangover, even from one or two drinks, makes me a little bit grumpy. For me, alcohol was a handbrake and encouraged a mindset that was muted and homogenous. As the experiment continued my moods shifted to a place which allowed me to engage more fully with the people and circumstances around me.
Like many of us, my job is stressful and it probably always will be. As my dry spell wore on I realised that the glass or two of wine shared with my wife over dinner was actually a way of dealing with a stressful day.
It turns out that alcohol is a terrible antidote for stress and anxiety. Recent research shows that, for some people, being stressed reduces the impact of alcohol resulting in more drinking to achieve the desired result. Drinking causes short-term relaxation but reduces our ability to manage stress. For me, abstinence made me better at dealing with and responding to stress at work and at home. I was harder to rattle and recovered more quickly.
I am going to dive into a further dry spell for another few months without alcohol. It is not easy, particularly when habits have been entrenched over many years. Whether your own challenge is work stress or Friday night socialising, there are good strategies for dealing with this.