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Mythbusters: Firms should encourage workplace ‘drinkies’

23 March 2017

This article is over 3 years old
hands raising glasses of wine

Last year, media seized on research that seemed to show using alcohol could have incredible benefits in a white collar work environment. The New Zealand Herald and the Dominion Post quoted excerpts from a Victoria University study that showed drinks could help create stronger work relationships, make employees work harder out of loyalty (the company becomes a ‘good mate’ for picking up the tab) and feel rewarded for their long hours and efforts.

Alcohol use was seen as an effective way to celebrate company success, make new employees feel welcome and even to build more relaxed and productive relationships with clients. Best of all, employees were found to drink carefully at work functions to protect their careers and images in front of bosses and managers.

Mythbusters suspects readers might come away from these articles wondering why their own workplaces don’t lay on more free booze. They might also have gained the impression the study was solely about whether alcohol at work was a good thing and that its main conclusion was a loud “Yes!” that could be heard all around the office.

But, of course, this isn’t the case at all. The title of the study is a very unsexy Organisational identity and alcohol use among young employees: a case study of a professional services firm. Its purpose was to examine how the workplace can influence young people’s alcohol consumption. Its conclusion was that understanding this can help workplace policy makers reduce the harmful effects of young people’s heavy drinking. This is a lot less fun and exciting than the media may have led us to believe.

Also note that the study looked at a single New Zealand company. The study is quite clear that its findings should not be generalised.

The paper also notes the unnamed firm managed alcohol in the workplace well, and references to training in alcohol etiquette, high expectations of employee behaviour, “deliberate managerial control” and clear, specific purposes for work functions are scattered throughout.

In other words, this highly professional firm with its deliberate and developed alcohol policy, while probably not completely unique, shouldn’t be seen as the norm – and any conclusion that what happens there proves workplace drinks can do nothing but good is wildly off the money.

Not a lot of this was reflected in the news stories, though to its small credit, the Dominion Post includes one line saying organisations shouldn’t encourage or require employees to drink.

Something else the media didn’t seem to want to touch with a barge pole is the paper’s findings that employees may tend to “compartmentalise” their drinking, consuming less alcohol during the working week – to maintain that good impression – and much more during the weekends because of the “work hard, play hard” lifestyle they perceived as being part of their organisational identity.

Another point worth noting is that some employees drank much more heavily at work functions – where they thought people had loosened up – than they did at the more “collegial” Friday night work drinks which they perceived as being much more purposeful (the New Zealand Herald did briefly mention this).

Mythbusters acknowledges alcohol can be a social lubricant: it aids relaxation and helps create social bonds. There is a legitimate place for alcohol at work functions that are well managed and where expectations of moderation and good behaviour are explicit.

However, the media stories we’ve referenced give altogether the wrong impression by selectively presenting a single study’s findings. In many cases (if not most), workplace drinks that are solely for the purpose of letting off steam or blowing away the cobwebs of the working week only contribute to alcohol harm and the alarming carnage witnessed each weekend by accident and emergency staff.

Operation Unite, an Australasian campaign to target alcohol-related problems, begins just before Christmas each year and is testament to this. Its purpose in part is to limit the fallout from end-of-year work parties.

And, ironically, the same media that brought us our good news about alcohol at work also publishes articles every Christmas about how to deal with that work party hangover and how not to get so drunk you make a dick of yourself in front of the boss.

The Health Promotion Agency’s fact sheet Looking after people around alcohol in your workplace: simple tips for employers and social clubs provides a number of ideas for how employers can manage expectations and ensure alcohol at work functions is enjoyed responsibly. It points out that poorly organised workplace functions can actually hurt rather than help your profit line due to absenteeism, workplace accidents and lowered productivity.

That simply putting on work drinks will help your business is a myth not helped by selective and one-sided journalism. Mythbusters says if you’re going to encourage workplace drinkies, do it right or don’t do it at all.

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