Work & Wellbeing
Is it time to take responsibility for our boozy work culture?
16 min read
10 January 2020
An alcohol heavy culture occurs across all sectors of business, affecting employees that drink as well as those who don't.
In 2013, Chris* was a twenty-one-year-old graduate from the University of Nottingham when he secured his first job at a central London marketing firm.
With the after-effects of 2008’s financial crash still plaguing the employment market, he considered himself one of the lucky ones to have secured a well paid full-time position.
But four months later, Chris* quit his job and his rented flat, and moved home to Surrey to rethink his career. – What happened?
Graduates: alcohol upon arrival
Like many others working in the private sector, Chris* experienced firsthand the social culture that comes with white-collar job roles, a culture, that’s more often than not, underpinned by alcohol consumption.
A self-proclaimed “social drinker,” Chris* initially enjoyed his company’s emphasis on workplace socialising, and in particular after-work drinking as a way to bond with colleagues. However, the constant succession of weeknight drinking sessions, coupled with the long working days, soon took its toll on Chris*.
Creating a routine where he was “constantly hungover,” by the end of each working day, one ‘hair of the dog’ led to two, then three, and the cycle began anew.
An expensive habit
This drinking culture, enforced, (Chris* thinks), by senior staff and perpetuated by junior employees who disseminate these unofficial rules to new starters, is a worryingly expensive habit for young workers. While the company usually picks up the food and drinks bill for official work events, when an ingrained culture puts pressure on employees to ‘go-to drinks’ after work regularly, it’s the employees themselves who pay.
But stunted productivity levels and financial stress aren’t all that happens when employees drink ‘at work,’ misconduct can occur too.
Misconduct and “work perks”
Chris* recalls an incident he witnessed at the firm’s annual Christmas party. Held at an exclusive London venue, he remembers senior male staff engaging in open sexual acts with younger female employees while both parties were clearly under the influence of alcohol. Many of the men involved were managing the young women at work.
He adds that excessive or ‘binge drinking’ was actively encouraged at these company parties.
In this booze-driven culture, non-drinkers can feel alienated socially while those who do drink are encouraged to drink more, leading to an overall decline in work productivity.
A female ‘young professional,’ called Anita* is 26 and works in the creative industries. She tells me that in almost every job interview she’s had since graduating four years ago, the interviewers made the connection between promoting alcohol consumption at work and being a quote, “sociable company”.
A few made explicit reference to the fact that “most” of the staff “go for drinks regularly,” with one hiring manager telling her that “you can find someone to go for drinks with every night of the week here.”
Anita* believes these sentiments were promoted as evidence of an appealing company culture at these businesses.
Money and productivity lost
It’s not only impressionable graduates or twentysomethings that feel the effects of this workplace culture. Boozy culture affects businesses of all sectors and employees of all ages. Even back in 2012, the government attributed 7-11% of all workplace absences to the effects of drinking.
And with ‘hangover days‘ being pushed as a work perk by a growing number of businesses, coupled with the fact the UK economy loses some 7bn’s worth of productivity a year due to workplace drinking – the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.
Just where did this emphasis on workplace drinking come from?
Did it start as a way for companies to ‘appeal’ to university graduates entering the job market? Or is it due to overworked employees needing to cultivate their own social lives from their long working days?
Whatever the origins, there are employees who drink alcohol, but there are also those who are teetotal for medical, mental health, religious or family reasons.
In this booze-driven culture, non-drinkers can feel alienated socially while those who do drink are encouraged to drink more, leading to an overall decline in work productivity. What can be done to make it more inclusive?
Overcoming the culture
Tom Bourlet is a Senior Digital Marketer at The Stag Company, based in Brighton. He tells us how his company made a positive transition from a boozy culture to one that’s found more inclusive ways for its employees to unwind, socialise and relax together.
“We used to have a very heavy boozy culture at the company, where we would take regular office trips which would include all drinks paid for by the company. The whole office would drink on Friday’s and we were normally allowed to drink 1 hour before the end of the working day. It was ingrained into the culture, we were selling parties therefore we had to live and breath the industry.
“However, the company has made a number of efforts to move away from this focus. While the party planners were originally provided with free energy drinks, this was swapped over for smoothies. A number of company trips are a lot more civilised, including activities such as afternoon tea, escape rooms and murder mysteries. We state that staff can drink if they want to, but alcoholic beverages will no longer be covered by the company.
“As someone who is tackling Dry January, this is appreciated, as the temptation of peer pressure on a Friday if everyone was pushing me to join them at the pub would be immense, but it has been alright so far.
“We came round to the conclusion that having healthier staff members leads to greater productivity and greater levels of motivation. While we saw providing a great time and entertaining the staff made them stay loyal, it was short-sighted and created a relaxed attitude. It made the workplace seem too casual, like a playground rather than an office. We knew our staff members were hard-working and dedicated, but we were the reason they were not working at full capacity.
“So we transitioned our focus from entertainment to wellbeing, delegated responsibility and communal focus. We set tasks for members that weren’t used to management roles and provided anything they required, so they spent their time planning on how to impress the rest of the workforce rather than heading out drinking. This gave them valuable work experience, both for our company and any future workplace they enter, while it also helped to pull them towards our company goals.
“We all enjoy a drink, but it is important to understand that all staff members might be in different situations. Some may have commitments at home, others may have stressful lives which isn’t helped by drinking, while some may simply not enjoy drinking alcohol and may feel pressured into it. This was not a scenario we wanted to be providing, so we made a decision to move away from our more wild past and move towards a much more healthier office scene.”
Jess Sheperd is a PR professional* from the North-West who has been teetotal for a number of years. She details her experience working in a sector that’s long been associated with drinking.
“I’d been drinking pretty heavily since the age of about 16, inevitably getting worse while at university and then it reached a peak during my mid-20s. I’d had a sneaking suspicion for a few years that alcohol wasn’t doing me any good, but for a long time, I thought I was the problem. Why couldn’t I drink ‘normally’ like other people? Why did I get such intense feelings of shame and sadness after drinking? Why did other people seem able to function just fine even with a horrific hangover?
“After a while, I realised that the problem wasn’t me, and my relationship with alcohol wasn’t something that needed to be fixed – it just needed to end.
“I work in a traditionally boozy sector with a strong culture of socialising and networking, which didn’t make stopping drinking any easier. Thankfully, I’m lucky to work for a company that genuinely understands and appreciates different ways of life. At our most recent Christmas party, which kicked off with drinks in the office, there was a wide selection of premium alcohol-free spirits and fizz so that those of us choosing not to drink could still toast and celebrate. When you’re with colleagues you don’t know all that well, not being empty-handed while everyone else drinks makes a huge difference to your confidence and comfort.
“In a world where booze is marketed to us relentlessly as a cure-all, I believe it’s important to be as open as possible about my negative experiences on the off-chance that someone else who is questioning their relationship with alcohol feels they are not alone. You don’t have to be pouring a drink in the morning, or having blackouts, or losing your job, to question whether alcohol serves you. The longer I am sober, the more it seems like a radical act of rebellion.”
Susy Roberts is an executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, she advises what employers can do to cut down on a boozy work culture.
“There’s no need to exclude alcohol completely in the workplace (with the obvious exceptions of places where safety is paramount), but there should be enough social activities or ways of celebrating that don’t involve alcohol so that people can take part in things they’re comfortable with.
“Just as not everyone wants to join the work football team, people don’t always want to go to the pub. You wouldn’t force someone to play football if they can’t or don’t want to, and you shouldn’t expect someone to go to a place or take part in behaviour they really don’t want to.
“Instead, as much consideration should be given to social activities that don’t discriminate. Almost a third of young people don’t drink at all now. While many of them may be happy to go to a pub and drink soft drinks, it makes sense to provide social activities that aren’t based around serving alcohol: escape rooms, group sporting activities, theatre and cinema, group classes in cookery, pottery, art… there are numerous options. Not to consider them is willfully excluding a whole class of people, whatever their reasons for not drinking alcohol.
“I work with one client who has a drinks fridge stocked with a range of alcoholic and soft drinks. At the end of the day, or after a big meeting, people can take a drink and socialise and discuss the events of the day. It’s all about people coming together in an environment where they feel relaxed, where they’re switched off and where they can have easy conversations. No one is forced to take part, but because there’s no pressure and it’s not a rowdy environment, it’s a very popular policy.
“There are obvious pitfalls to centering work social activities purely around boozy lunches and parties: I’ve worked with plenty of people over the years who’ve faced disciplinary proceedings or even lost their jobs because they’ve told their managers what they think of them after a few drinks. People who can’t manage their behaviour, whether it’s because of alcohol or not, need to be dealt with in the usual disciplinary manner. Alcohol is no excuse for indulging in offensive behaviour, and a work culture should ensure that anyone who behaves inappropriately faces the consequences of their actions, whatever the reason.”
* Real Business interviewed a number of professionals that wished to have their name or place of work kept anonymous.