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When your drinking has a culture problem: booze-based socialising at work

Row, row, row your boat
Ever felt a little adrift at a work social?

For the next two weeks the Juggle blog will be focusing on wellbeing, at home, at work and every space in between. We’ll be asking for your experiences and opinions through social media, including via our regular Wednesday Poll and Friday Pub Quiz question.

 

Social culture at work is a big part of employee wellbeing. You’ve got to see these people nearly every day of your life, so how you get on with them matters. And when it comes to creating and maintaining relationships, nothing beats a quick drink after work, right? Unless you don’t drink alcohol. Or you’ve got an early start and a busy day tomorrow. Or you prefer never to come to work even a little hungover. Or you feel under pressure to attend, for fear of being judged, or shunned, or even passed over for later advancement. Or all you do with your colleagues outside of work is drink, and you’re a little sick of it.

How many of these have to be true – maybe not every time, but sometimes – before you have to ask yourself: does your workplace have a drinking socialising problem?

 

It’s not about the booze

This is not a temperance piece, or an attempt to shame any behaviours. At the Juggle office, staff drink together after work regularly – we occasionally drink together at work in the afternoons. We like to think this is part of a healthy office culture – but we have thought about what that really means (more on that a little later). In this article (as in life in general) alcohol is a catalyst: we’ll be using it to accelerate and clarify discussion by providing a ready example.

Speaking of examples, let’s introduce a few. Based on a bit of intra-office discussion we’ve come up with a few that are common enough to be broadly understood, even if they aren’t universal. One thing that immediately stands out is that several of these appear to occur frequently in specific jobs or industry sectors and not much elsewhere. But if none of these have ever happened to you, you at least probably know someone who experiences them.

  • “Business development happens with a drink in your hand.” It could be boozy lunches or after-work functions, network events or the bar after a conference – but schmoozing new clients or checking in on existing ones almost always involves drinking.
  • “I think we’ve earned it (again).” You’re stressed. Deadlines are tight. Resources are slim. Jobs could potentially be on the line. You’ve earned the relaxation and decompression that comes with an occasional pint after work. Except that you’re regularly so stressed, with deadlines so tight, that one doesn’t really seem enough, and “occasional” looks a lot more like “daily” at this point.
  • “I don’t want to be left out.” You quite like your colleagues, and you enjoy their company. But if you want to do that outside of office hours, well, the pub is where you’ll find them, so that’s where you’ll have to be.
  • “I drink like my job depends on it.” Maybe attendance is mandatory. Maybe there’s pressure from your peers. Maybe non-attendance labels you disinterested. Maybe the time in the pub is the only time when senior staff mingle with their juniors, so if you want to network you need to get a round in.
  • “When we go… we go hard.” Ah, the office party. Regular, revelous, occasionally revelatory (“who knew Charlie from legal could dance like that?”) Your office crew are a mild-mannered bunch, but the infrequent “official” events are booze-fuelled and the next days are always write-offs. On the plus side, nobody in the office is working, so it’s not like you have much to feel guilty about.  

These examples are deliberately broad, but most professionals will have encountered a situation similar to the above. And are all of them really so bad? What’s wrong with letting your hair down at a staff event, or getting new clients to open up with a relaxing glass of wine? Surely if you’ve worked hard, you have earned a drink?

Like we said, this is not a temperance article. We don’t need to tell you about the negative effects of alcohol (so we’ll cheat and let these articles do it for us). And, common as the above examples seem to be, working culture in the UK is shifting away from drinking as millennials come to make up a larger section of the workforce (tl;dr reasons: less money, less stability in career, less inclined to drink generally). But several of the examples above are out-and-out toxic, and the rest could easily become so without careful monitoring. Like we said, alcohol is a catalyst.

What’s in this drink?

Alcohol is unique because of its properties – too much of it is just straight-up bad for you, and even in low doses it will affect your perception, lower your inhibitions and degrade things that you rely on moment-to-moment like short-term memory and motor skills. Drinking is also – for most – a social lubricant. It makes you more talkative and expressive, a little less guarded. It makes perfect sense that it would become the linchpin of social culture in a workplace – it’s a catalyst for interaction. It’s a ubiquitous and fairly cheap way to encourage bonding.

That it’s a double-edged sword is well known. Few British people make it to their first office job without experiencing a hangover. And while your average late-teens to mid-twenties training-wheels hangover might set you back a morning, anyone who’s tried to ride out a day with a full-adulthood “oh God this is the end” hungover can testify both to how nightmarish it is and how much of a waste of time. Encouraging your staff to over-indulge is guaranteed to result in negative performance the following day.

Alcohol can have more serious deleterious short-terms effects than a pounding headache and queasy tum. Without going into the gory details too much: booze leads to poor decision-making. Couple that with lowered inhibitions and you have a recipe for trouble. The drunker you are, the greater the need to act responsibly. The drunker you are, the less likely you are to be responsible at all.

Even established relationships can be wobbled by the introduction of alcohol. Workplace relationships, which are generally very specifically coded or limited to specific circumstances, can be seriously upset by interactions where one or both parties are drunk. Again, everyone knows this. Most people have woken up ashamed at last night’s behaviour or laughed at someone who has… or suffered as a result of said behaviour. It’s not all fun and games, and employers who allow a hard-drinking culture to flourish (or deliberately foster one) cannot be unaware of this.

 

On the rocks without it?

Recap: alcohol facilitates and accelerates bonding, but introduces an element of personal risk that compounds and increases with each bev you sink. That’s the whole issue in a nutshell, and we find it quite revealing. We’d go as far as to hypothesise that a reliance on alcohol in workplace culture demonstrates one or more of the following:

  • The results are more important than the risk – this one relates mostly to “business development”, but applies to any position where the consumption of alcohol is “part of the job.” The positives of alcohol in this context alone (faster bonding, lower inhibitions etc, which leads to networking/deals done etc) outweigh the risks to those that are taking part. Bosses believe that booze and booze culture improves the bottom line, the workplace culture, or both. It’s up to staff to manage the impact of alcohol on their health.  
  • The results (and the risk) don’t matter – workplace social culture doesn’t really matter to the company heads. Perhaps they don’t believe that it helps people do their jobs better, but for whatever reason they don’t really care whether it exists or how healthy it is. They know they’re supposed to, and alcohol is the cheapest and simplest way to encourage one to grow, so they just do that.  
  • There’s no supervision – employers would prefer a healthy social culture at their work… they’d just also prefer not to have to do anything to guide or manage it. Drinking is straightforward and largely accepted – the lowest hanging fruit.
  • No bonding occurs at work – whether that’s because of different backgrounds, levels, interactions, whatever. People aren’t here to make friends, and there’s nothing that encourages them to break out of that mindset. An office party without booze would just be awkward.
  • You’re expected to manage your own stress – and if drinking is how you do that then you do you… just don’t come in to work hungover.
  • One size is expected to fit all – booze works for everyone else, so why doesn’t it work for you? The only possible explanation is that you’re a big fat party pooper. Nobody likes a party pooper. Come ooooon, have a drink with us, party pooper.     

 

I’m not the problem, YOU’RE the problem

The demon drink doesn’t get off scot-free here. We should all try to glug less of it, or at least practise mindful drinking when we do. But even a little digging into why alcohol is still the go-to for building a social culture in a company reveals a key fact. Alcohol is an accelerant, of the good and the bad. If your company relies on alcohol to drive socialising – either because they don’t want to search for alternatives, or they’re dismissive of the risks and side-effects – then your company doesn’t have a drinking problem, it has a culture problem.  

Back to the Juggle office. There’s normally beer and prosecco kicking around in the fridge. We don’t have one of those swanky special beer fridges like all the Silicon Valley start-ups, but once we take over the world we’ll probably have two. The alcohol comes out in the late afternoon, often before or during one of the big feedback meetings, the ones where we all demo or explain what we’ve been working on, the strategic thinking we’ve been doing or problems we could use some help with. A beer helps people relax and sometimes brings out a little burst of creativity that’s perfect for group discussions.

There’s a certain type of culture that we’re trying to create – collaborative, relaxed, supportive, candid, professional but largely informal – and sometimes an evening beer or two can help with that. How we get there more generally is up to the staff and again, if alcohol is beneficial to that then we’re all for it. We’re not particularly worried about it ever becoming a negative influence, but that’s largely because we’ve thought about it. We know what sort of culture we’re trying to establish, and we know – for now – what effects booze is having on that. It’s comparable to the other things we do to cement better social (and therefore professional) relationships, not a key pillar in its own right. If it turns out that everyone hates the company board game night then we’d nix that and try something else (don’t panic, Artjom, it was just an example).

Workplace social culture is often allowed to happen “by accident”, or as a crutch to cover for a bad culture in the office. If your staff have to sink a few at the end of every day just to face coming back in the morning then something is wrong. If your staff have to risk their health just to fit in or be included then something is wrong. If your staff know little to nothing about each other and have no interest in improving their relationships then something is wrong.

 

Drowning your sorrows

There’s an ironic parallel here – companies using alcohol as an excuse not to really look at the culture they’re creating, or denying (largely by inaction or omission) that they’re responsible for that culture at all. Team drinks and that’s it. Here’s the occasional bit of bar spend. There’s not even much implicit trust because so much of it happens outside of work hours and so much of what’s demanded in return is contradictory. You’re trusted not to come to work with a hangover, then told to do the thing that always leads to hangovers. You’re expected to remain productive after a boozy lunch, despite the utter scientific impossibility of that. You’re trusted to remain civil and respectful to your colleagues, but then given a smokescreen for bad behaviour, which undermines the principles of that trust.

So what to do instead? Drink responsibly – that is, take responsibility as a business for the effect that alcohol has, and use those effects responsibly and efficiently. If you’ve never discussed it – never even thought about it – then do it now. That’s a great start, and will have immediate positive effects on social culture. Looking for other things you can do to improve social culture and the wellbeing of your staff? In an ideal office each would be tailored to the demands of the job and the existing staff dynamics, but here you go:

  • Don’t paper over the cracks. This is the big one. If there’s something about the job that makes fostering good relationships difficult (long hours, different shifts, stress) then work to fix it, and if that’s impossible, at least acknowledge it and create social events and initiatives that run counter to it. If you have to work late into the night, absolutely have to, a half-hour, paid-for, proper team dinner each night solves a lot more problems than sticking another few ponies behind the bar at the end of the month.   
  • Do more things. One team event a month makes attending pressurised. If you miss it you don’t get another shot for a long time. Anyone who can’t attend is left out, which means people might attend even when they don’t want to. Instead of one or two high-profile events a month, try setting up or encouraging events for smaller groups, more regularly. If something ends up over-subscribed then great, run with it.
  • Do diverse things. And it doesn’t have to be paintball or escape rooms or wine tasting. How many people in your office might appreciate an hour a week playing FIFA with their colleagues? Or board games? Or just an evening walk? There are literally hundreds of things you could do, for free or hardly any money, that are low fuss and low impact.
  • Do healthy things. People want these. Nobody has enough time to exercise. Offer it at work and people will go for it. Lunchtime running club. Free bonding, better for your health, a short run keeps you energised. Boom.
  • Do things during the day. The evening is for socialising. Fine. Except the evening is also for childcare, commuting, studying, cooking, chores, personal admin, going to the gym, meditating… Keeping socialising out of working hours implies that the two things are and will remain separate, plus it’s just impractical for a lot of people. We know that this is our solution to everything but… be more flexible.

Booze can be heaps of fun, but booze alone ain’t socialising. At Juggle we’re sure that a good social culture is a boon to any business, and that means companies need to step up and create.

And if you’re a company that’s already doing it right then cheers, here’s to you.

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