Telling the truth about SME life today

Staff drinking at work – The problems created

Following July’s alcohol awareness week, Real Business finds out what our UK SMEs can do to lower the risk of staff drinking at work. Considering the risks of staff drinking at work social events and how best to try and prevent problems. The use of alcohol in the workplace creates a toxic environment for everyone, and this relationship has been a long-standing issue for some time. In England, there are estimated to be over 600,000 dependent drinkers with low numbers receiving any support.

Those who have worked in the white-collar corporate realm for decades will say that the lunchtime boozers are a dying breed, and “is nowhere near the way it used to be” said David, former Managing Director of an International Trust Company.

There was a time, under the shadow of London’s Canary Wharf, that there was a smattering of suit drinkers who typically left work early on a Friday lunchtime to chat about their week and what their plans were when they left the city for the weekend. Have you ever wondered why so many public houses are very close to old hospital grounds – They got good business from the staff! For many, the workplace drinking culture stopped beyond socially drinking with colleagues on a Christmas get together, however for some, the pressures of Britain’s drink-fuelled business culture is embedded between the lines of their job description. Meeting clients or colleagues outside of the office is often set within a bar or restaurant, featuring a pint of beer, whisky over ice, or a bottle of champagne.

Staff drinking at work or in the work environment can create a myriad of problems. It blurs judgement and releases inhibition – not always for the better.

Alcohol Consumption of the Working-Woman

Over recent years, we have witnessed a shift in our drinking patterns amongst genders too.

Women now drink just as much as men and currently stand as the fastest growing group susceptible to alcohol abuse. Although the pandemic has elevated the rates of alcohol abuse among women, there are also other contributing variables.

Research found that women – particularly mothers – take on a greater share of tasks, that ringing especially true for women who work remotely.

In addition to this, the changing of cultural norms and societal messages of the relationship between alcohol and women have changed drastically. It is now seen as “trendy” to “want” alcohol; shifting the commercialisation to be targeted more to women. For example, low-calorie drinks and hard seltzers, which are ultimately designed to make alcohol more attractive to women.


“Booze Culture” in the UK

Drinking culture in the UK has evolved significantly over the years, with differences in the way we drink, how we drink, what we drink and where we drink steadily altering depending on the marketing and legislation of alcohol.

Compared to other countries in Europe – although the UK’s overall consumption is relatively average – we are consistently among the highest for binge drinking. However, our growing reliance on alcohol has been greatly fuelled by the pandemic, in which the boundaries between home and work life were blurred, and alcohol was perceived as a stress-reliever, or associated with “switching-off”. This unfortunately can create a long-term habit.


The Rise of being ‘Sober Curious’

For many, not drinking has been rather suspect when at work gatherings. Often interpreted as someone who struggles with alcoholism or that you’re just a virtue-signalling teetotaller, who doesn’t know how to enjoy themselves.

Yet, recently you may be more aware of the shift to those being “sober curious”. Those who don’t or barely drink and do it with complete pride. Often, broadcasting their abstinence on social media.

At 1.9 billion views, the #sober hashtag on short-video platform, ‘TikTok’ acts as a very popular and valuable resource for many who are intrigued by the benefits of sobriety. Additionally, the rise of empowerment community groups on social media such as, Sober Girl Society allows for many sober curious individuals to be in an environment of acceptance, which they may not have established within other social aspects of their life.

Founder of Sober Girl Society, Millie Gooch explained to Real Business that, “Over the last few years we’ve seen more and more people get mindful about their relationship with alcohol, something that was vastly accelerated by the pandemic.”

“Catering for sober curious employees can vastly benefit company culture because it means everyone can be included. Socials that revolve around alcohol are likely to make some employees – including those from religions/cultures who choose not to drink – feel excluded and therefore not part of the team. It also limits the type of bonds that colleagues can make if they don’t have drinking in common, whereas different types of social-activity-led-events will allow colleagues to bond over new experiences and create a better work dynamic between them.”

People’s perception of non-alcoholic drinks has drastically changed over the past year, with sales of non-alcoholic beer growing by 58%, the markets most popular alcoholic brands are innovating their product portfolio to satisfy consumer demand.

But, why is the alcohol-free market growing at such a fast rate?

Snowshock claims that “the UK is becoming a lot more health conscious… through the rise of veganism and ethical consumerism.”

They go on to say that the Kombucha markets have “boomed” over the past two-years. The health benefits attached to the fermented goodness, links to improvements in indigestion, reduced feelings of depression and anxiety, and weight-loss – and also, considered to be a low-to-no (NOLO) alcohol drink, as it contains less than 0.5% alcohol.

Additionally, due to the adaptation of many alcoholic brands altering their drinks to alcoholic-slush options, the global slush machine market is predicted to reach a value of $391.3 million by 2026. Snowshock says that “NOLO slushies will be the next best thing to compete with the alcoholic market”.


What You Can Do as a Business Owner

Employees often take their cues from those higher. However, some reports state that managers are more likely to be impaired on the job and more so, in jobs where there is limited supervision from managers, there could be more abuse on the job.

The purpose of workplace drinking culture is that it is meeting the needs of many of our staff, that perhaps are not being met in other ways. Leadership expert and HR Consultant, Claire Brummell explained to Real Business that leaders “need to understand what needs the drinking culture is meeting and how to create initiatives that meet those needs in other ways.”

“A lot of the workplace drinking culture takes place because people are looking to connect with others, and drinking is one of the most common ways that people have learned to do that in the UK.”

Claire recommended that as a business owner, “if you begin to arrange and organise other non-drinking related ways for their employees to connect, the tendency of their employees to connect via drinking will reduce.”

Recent research from Drinkaware, revealed 43% of adults admitted to drinking on work social events due to a feeling of needing to keep up.

As part of diversity strategies within your business, alcohol-free work socials should be high on the agenda, aligning and respecting your staff’s cultural choices and personal preferences.

Claire also explained that alcohol is associated with relieving stress. “Just think about how many people, after a long or challenging day, say, “I need a drink.” There are two approaches to this aspect of the culture, firstly leaders can look for ways to reduce or minimise stress within the working environment, and secondly they can again create initiatives to help employees de-stress which do not require drinking.”

As an employer, it’s of high importance that you recognise the many benefits of implementing programs that are designed to improve employee health and wellness, such as being sober curious.

This will enable you to create a workplace culture and community that is inclusive, alongside incorporating a system which allows for your team to be conscious of their personal resilience and maintain a sense of well-being.

Ideas for you to incorporate social events that don’t elevate a drinking culture:

  • Shift the focus of client meetings away from alcohol consumption and “happy hour” to the focus being, “networking”
  • Reduce or put a limit to alcohol which is being provided by the company, and ensure there are non-alcoholic options offered for the non-drinkers
  • Diversify the types of social events, which don’t involve alcohol (this may deter staff to attend, so ensure you promote the event to avoid the company culture to be centred around alcohol)
  • Utilise and offer certified addiction awareness facilitators to your staff for education, training, and resources


Lack of Policies and Rules

In some cases, employees and their managers aren’t aware of the company’s policies for staff drinking at work or work events.

Tom McLaughlin, Managing Associate of Employment Law Firm, BDBF explained to Real Business that, “The key thing is that employers develop a clear policy setting out their rules and expectations around alcohol use at work… the policy should also recognise that some employees will struggle with alcohol abuse and sign-post appropriate help.”

Research shows that if there are policies in the workplace, they are not being enforced. As an employer, how can alcohol abuse touch upon employer obligations? Tom McLaughlin added, “There are the obvious implications from a health and safety point for employees operating machinery and in safety critical role… alcohol addiction is specifically excluded from the definition of “disability” under the Equality Act (otherwise employees suffering with it could well meet the definition).”

“But alcohol addiction can often be caused by, or cause, other conditions which do qualify as disabilities. So, for example, where an employee abuses alcohol because they are clinically depressed, then this may meet the definition of “disability” and give rise to important obligations.”

As an employer, you are in a unique position to provide your workforce with the appropriate support to improve their well-being. It’s important that you’re proactive in addressing alcohol misuse within your workforce, which will ultimately have a direct influence in the future of your company culture and will reduce the risk of absenteeism, health complications, on-the-job injuries, and other losses in productivity.

Next time you organise the works night-out, we hope you take this into consideration.


If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction or substance abuse, here is some useful contacts:

Drinkline (free helpline in complete confidence): Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm).

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a free self-help group.

Al-Anon Family Groups offers support and understanding to the families and friends of problem drinkers, whether they’re still drinking or not.

SMART Recovery groups help people decide whether they have a problem, build up their motivation to change, and offer a set of proven tools and techniques to support recovery.

Caring for an alcoholic? Find out where you can get support.



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