Meeting outside of the office can help people feel more connected to their colleagues and ‘let loose’ after an intense workday. And while start-up company events have traditionally included unlimited alcohol, the pandemic has accelerated unhealthy alcohol use, creating a need for People Leaders to rethink responsible policies.
Work travel and entertainment are back in a big way. After a long hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, many teams are gathering for happy hours, holiday parties, conferences, and beyond. While remote work policies have become more prevalent and flexible, employees are still seeking in-person connection.
After all, the reason that many employers hold such gatherings is to build camaraderie among the workforce. Meeting outside of the office can help people feel more connected to their colleagues and ‘let loose’ after an intense workday.
When we think of work-sponsored events, many people think about unlimited alcohol. But as a society, our definition of ‘letting loose’ is evolving. There has been a growing amount of data that suggests people are actually drinking less than in years past. Take, for example, a recent Gallup poll that found only 60% of Americans say they drink, down from 65% in 2019. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that young people are leading the charge. Between 2002 and 2018, the share of college students who said they abstain from alcohol increased from 20% to 28%, according to a study from JAMA Pediatrics.
While the total number of non-drinkers may be increasing, the number of people struggling with unhealthy alcohol use has been steadily on the rise. Between 2006 and 2014, alcohol-related emergency room visits increased 47 percent. The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated unhealthy alcohol use, as shown in alcohol sales and studies. And unfortunately, this is reflected in the workforce. Approximately 9% of full time workers meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, characterized by drinking more than you want to despite wanting to cut back.
This is why it is so important that any work events or parties have a responsible alcohol policy in place, and are aware of support solutions like Monument. This also applies to any gathering where alcohol might be involved: professional travel with colleagues or clients, company offsites or work summits, in-office socializing, or frequent after-work events.
Our society has created a strong association between alcohol and socialization, which can make it incredibly hard to say no to alcohol without opting out of events. That is why it is so important to create a welcoming company atmosphere where people can be free to attend without feeling obligated to consume alcohol.
Unfortunately, many people do feel obligated to drink, especially when the event is organized by employers or supervisors. A 2019 study observed eight Norwegian companies to analyze different dimensions of drinking culture that could cause potentially risky drinking behavior. They found that when people felt a degree of obligation to attend or participate in an event, it increased the chances that they would partake in risky drinking behavior.
Even something as small as the topic of conversation was shown to have an effect. If people were partaking in casual small talk, it lowered their chances of risky drinking, while talk about work increased it. And when there was a lack of designated rules about the amount of alcohol that could be consumed, it made things even worse.
It is important to remember that a very large portion of America doesn't consume alcohol. According to American Addiction Centers, 30% of people stringently avoid drinking altogether. This can be due to a number of reasons, ranging from alcohol use disorder to people who abstain for health or religious reasons. At the same time, many people simply do not like the taste of alcohol.
For those employees who choose not to drink or are trying to drink less, work gatherings can be stressful. A coworker may offer to "buy a round" for everyone at the party, and all of a sudden, a person who previously had no intention of drinking is sitting there with an alcoholic beverage in front of them.
One study titled "Drinking in the Workplace" by Niznik Behavioral Health surveyed over 1,000 respondents. They found that up to 35% of people who attended work events did not want to drink. While some people chose to make up a reason not to attend, 12% went anyway and just pretended to drink.
Meanwhile, of those who attended work events and willingly consumed alcohol, nearly 30% said they only did so because they felt pressured because their coworkers were drinking. Another 20% said they felt inclined because their boss was drinking, and 44% felt they'd be negatively judged if they didn't attend.
It should also be noted that many people attend and drink at work events because they believe it will help them improve professional relationships or provide opportunities for career advancement. In the same study mentioned above, nearly half of those surveyed said they thought drinking with their boss or coworker improved their relationships, while nearly a quarter believed that drinking with their boss would lead to better job opportunities. This illustrates the need to address alcohol use at an organizational level. (Our team at Monument can help!)
Something also worth noting—especially for HR professionals—is that certain industries seem to promote heavy drinking more than others. Tech employees are the most likely to be offered free alcohol, but they are not the only ones. Those who work in construction, marketing, advertising, arts, entertainment, or information services are all more prone to see an abundance of heavy workplace drinking.
Very often, drinking at work events comes with shame and regret. 14% of those surveyed said that they ended up revealing personal secrets or complained about work issues that they then regretted after the fact. Another 10% said that their drinking resulted in embarrassing behavior, such as becoming too drunk or engaging in sexual activity with a coworker. 2% even admitted to sexually harassing a coworker.
Excessive alcohol use can also lead to reduced productivity, participation, and attendance. A recent study found that, prior to the pandemic, 232 million days of work were missed a year in the US because of problem drinking, with that number likely being even higher as more people continue to work from home.
On average, people suffering from alcohol use disorder reported missing 32 days of work due to illness, injury, or simply because they felt like skipping work. Meanwhile, those with mild alcohol use disorder said they missed around 18 days of work. And as for those without any alcohol disorder, the number was 13 days.
When we look at the workforce as a whole, nearly 11 million full-time workers across the nation meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder. And even though people with the disorder accounted for only 9.3% of the participants, they made up 14.1% of the total workplace absences.
And as the holiday season fast approaches, it means that many people will soon be consuming more alcohol than normal. A survey conducted by Morning Recovery sought to determine seasonal drinking patterns and examine how they affect everyday life throughout the holidays.
They found that alcohol intake nearly doubled between Thanksgiving and New Year's among the 2,000 Americans surveyed. This translated to the average American worker being late to work three times over the course of the holidays and absent twice. Meanwhile, seven out of ten said that hangovers and other effects of overdrinking make them less productive at work the next day.
The good news, employers are in a great position to empower healthier habits within their workforce. There are more options than ever before to promote a healthier, safer, and more inclusive culture. For example, it's no secret that non-alcoholic beverages have been increasing in popularity over the past several years. No-alcohol and low-alcohol products in the US grew by about 27% in 2021 and are expected to continue to grow by roughly 23% in 2022-2026. Incorporating non-alcoholic beverages into your team events and office can go a long way.
There are also many other ways you can make your team events safer and more inclusive. The team at Monument put together a free checklist about how to reduce the risk of heavy drinking, and support alcohol-free employees at your events.
Another consideration for company leaders is that employees in recovery should be a group you think about in your diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging programming. This can be a great way to support sober employees through pre-existing resources within your organization.
If you're an HR professional trying to figure out the best way to implement a responsible alcohol culture, Monument can help. Together, we can create a coherent set of guidelines and resources tailored to your company's needs so that all your staff are comfortable at work gatherings. As a member of the TroopHR network, you will be eligible for preferred pricing. Email us at email@example.com, or visit our partner page to tell us how we can help your organization.
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