Should alcohol be banned from work events?
While workplace drinking, be it during lunch, over a networking dinner, or at an evening function, undoubtedly still plays a role in people’s professional lives, there are signs that this role is becoming evermore minor. The expansion of the alcohol-free drinks market, statistics on drinking habits among young people – the managers and employers of tomorrow – as well as an increasing understanding of the damage alcohol can cause to health all point to a new UK drinking culture of ‘moderation’ – including alcohol consumption in a professional capacity.
It is almost five years since the UK Government updated its advice on recommended weekly alcohol unit consumption – to 14 units for men and women alike – and statistics have emerged since January 2016 which indicate an overall reduction in drinking among the adult population.
Almost consistently year on year, the number of adults who said they drank the week prior to being surveyed fell – this decrease is particularly noticeable among those aged 16 to 24, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
In a BBC interview, a young professional explained that people of her age lack the disposable income for regular after-work drinking sessions, as well as have greater awareness of how “drinking [can be] a drain on their productivity and their time”.
However, the ONS’s most recent findings from 2017 show that “people working in managerial and professional occupations, in addition to the highest earners, were most likely to say they drank alcohol in the past week.”
Also, while young people drink less than other age groups, “when they do drink, consumption on their heaviest drinking day tends to be higher than other ages”.
Moreover, recent CIPD research on alcohol consumption in a work setting found that “most employers (84%) said official organisation social events typically involve alcohol, with just 14% saying they don’t.”
CIPD offers the following advice for employers regarding organising events that may involve alcohol off the back of their findings: “We advise against fuelling a drinking culture – and urge HR to consider the implications for wellbeing and inclusion when planning work events. Plans should strike the appropriate balance between rewarding employees for good work and improving morale, with a genuine commitment to employee wellbeing.”
The Balance Careers echoes this in their article on alcohol at company events, which encourages employers to emphasise the importance of upholding company values and professionalism to employees prior to an event with alcohol. It also suggests that serving alcoholic drinks over a limited time period could help keep attendees safe from the risk of over-consumption.
Tips for employees include looking to respected colleagues for cues as to whether or not to drink and how much to drink, or setting a limit for oneself before the event to stop alcohol consumption getting out of control.
Andrew Misell, Director at Alcohol Concern points out that while “routine lunchtime drinking is a thing of the past, […] in some workplaces and some professions there is still a pressure to drink in order to fit in and get on. There’s a lot that employers can do to shift the focus away from alcohol and ensure that drinks with colleagues remain a pleasant social option, not a prerequisite for professional success.”
The question of whether or not workplace or after-work-event drinking has become more moderate is clearly nuanced; it is not merely a case of ‘drinking culture in the workplace has improved’, as explained by Andrew Misell.
Results from a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) which asked Human Resources professionals how drinking was viewed in their organisation suggest that only 14% of HR professionals believe that alcohol has no place at any work event; workplace drinking of some variety is, therefore, not disappearing any time soon for the most part.
The stereotype is that certain industries and professions have a more prevalent drinking culture than others. City of London financiers, lawyers and brokers have upheld a reputation for working hard and playing hard, where playing equates to drinking alcohol and even working with “business development” or networking involves the use of alcohol as a “social lubricant” which allows stronger bonds to be made with clients. However, there is evidence that this is shifting.
Insurance firm Lloyd’s of London attracted attention for their recent move to a zero-tolerance of drinking between 9am and 5pm, having found that “around half of all disciplinary and grievance issues in the [year leading up to the ban] were alcohol related.”
The memo, which informed Lloyd’s staff of the decision reportedly stated that “the London market historically had a reputation for daytime drinking, but that has been changing and Lloyd’s has a duty to be a responsible employer”.
But it would seem that an employer’s legal duty of care towards its employees has long translated into a healthy drinking culture in some workplaces.
Interviews with public sector employees (local government and civil servants) yielded responses that suggest drinking at corporate events is not as prevalent as persistent City stereotypes might lead us to believe.
The annual Christmas function was reported as being the exception to the rule of no drinking at work events and even then, while people do drink, “it’s not expected”, my interviewee told me.
He went on to explain how the drinking culture is, in fact, healthy: “When we go for meals at lunch, nobody drinks as a rule of thumb [and when there is the option to drink], if anyone doesn’t […], they don’t tend to get any sort of peer pressure […] We’re more likely to be offered food in a buffet lunch format than alcohol for workplace celebrations”.
This anecdote appears to reflect an increasingly prevalent attitude towards drinking at work events, which was recently reported in a TotalJobs article under the headline “More than half (60%) of UK workers now want employers to pick booze-free locations for work events”.
The article went on to present findings including the fact that “just under half (48%) of UK workers suggest there should be fewer professional events and incentives centred around alcohol, and two-fifths (42%) going so far as to consider rejecting a job offer from an employer with a boozy reputation.”
This increasing desire for alcohol-free alternatives, even among people who do drink, has yielded positives for people who are tee-total, including for religious reasons; drinking cultures are edging closer to inclusivity, regardless of preferences for the odd work event with wine.
Shelina Janmohamed, author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, told the Financial Times that she believes “things are slowly changing: it’s not a wild thing to say [to colleagues that] you don’t want to go for a drink”. While this may have once hampered after-hours networking potential, there is reason to believe a change is occurring – and for the better, as far as non-drinkers, and all those committed to inclusivity at work, are concerned.
Laura Willoughby, Co-Founder of Club Soda, a company who aim to “support, advise, empower and encourage people who want to be mindful about their drinking”, comes with good advice for employers seeking to make their work functions more inclusive of people looking to cut down on alcohol, or people who don’t drink.
“There are many reasons why people may not be drinking at your work event – driving, dieting, pregnancy or they just don’t fancy drinking that night. For Club Soda, it’s all about offering choice for your diverse team and making sure that everyone feels welcome. So that sad, old jug of ‘help-yourself’ orange juice just does not cut it.
“Make sure you provide options for everyone, signpost them well and if you top up drinks throughout the evening make sure that everyone’s drink is topped up – not just those drinking wine. You may have to get tough with your caterers, but they need to get the message: the old rules no longer apply. You can factor this in when their contract is up for renewal. And you can find more top tips on catering for a diverse event here.“
Club Soda’s market research also suggests that a welcome knock-on effect of providing an improved non-alcoholic offering at an event is that fewer people drink than would if the only option was ‘that sad, old jug of help-yourself orange juice’.
The company’s workplace leaflet sums it up: “it is the drink in the hand that is important, not how much alcohol is in it”.
This message was recently delivered to Parliament in an open letter, also signed by Heineken, Sea Arch, Square Root, and Lucky Saint, among other non-alcoholic drinks producers, as a response to the recent decision to stop the sale of alcohol in Westminster during lockdown.
In a press release, Club Soda explained the rationale behind the letter: “As the nation faces another lockdown, Parliament has the opportunity to support home-grown alcohol-free drinks producers by ensuring that their products are available to buy across the estate […]
“Given that the Department of Health has also committed to help deliver a significant increase in the availability of alcohol-free products by 2025, it seems only right that Parliament should have more than three adult non-alcoholic options available.”
The charity Alcohol Change also provides a factsheet with advice on how to manage a workforce with regard to alcohol – whether consumed at a work function or otherwise (“people may attend work hungover or still under the influence from the night before, consume alcohol before work or during the day; or their work may be affected by health problems resulting from drinking”).
Alcohol Change seeks to help employers mitigate the effects of alcohol at work, which they have shown to currently amount to “lost productivity [costing] the UK economy more than £7 billion annually, and an estimated 167,000 working years […] lost to alcohol every year”.
With this in mind, employers are encouraged by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) “to develop a policy” as part of their legal duty of care to employees, including at work events, at which unrestricted alcohol consumption has the potential to cause health and safety-related issues.
The success of Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking Festival in recent years (alongside the statistics and anecdotal evidence quoted in this article) is an indication that a more measured approach to drinking, as encouraged by Alcohol Change – be it in a work context or simply socially – will likely only continue to go from strength to strength, bringing with it undeniable health, safety, productivity and financial gains. But this will, by no means, completely supersede corporate functions with alcohol on offer.
HR directors, such as HealthandWork’s very own Chair Sian Vernon, are under no illusion that “many people do enjoy the opportunity of relaxing with colleagues in a non-work situation and to enjoy a drink together. [It] boosts the morale, [and…] enables people to unwind and get to know each other better”.
Sian believes that there is “[not] necessarily a right or wrong answer” when it comes to the employer answering the “do you/don’t you question around alcohol and work functions”, but that it is a question of “judgement and circumstance”.
Judgement which can be exercised to ensure, among other things, that “there is plenty of food and non-alcoholic alternatives available, “free” alcohol [is limited, and] transport [is funded or laid on for after the event]”.
And a final note of advice from Sian for any employers navigating the grey area of alcohol and work events: “work functions are an extension of work itself with clear rules of conduct attached – and dealing swiftly and firmly with any breach – is, for me, a reasonable way to enable the fun whilst limiting the risks.”