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The staff social: Why we need to cater for non-drinkers

As some workplaces begin to welcome staff back into the office following lockdown, Tara explores the impact of alcohol and why employers should think about alternatives to the boozy work night out. 

Alcohol is seemingly everywhere. If it’s summertime, the supermarkets are advertising beer to go with your barbecue. At Christmas, Prosecco is pushed at every opportunity to make your festive knees-up go with a bang. These messages also filter into the workplace – meaning that, when it comes to staff socials, alcohol is often the centrepiece. 

Sadly, this isn’t a trend. Alcohol has been a staple part of work life for as long as I can remember – with some industries particularly renowned for boozy lunches, champagne-filled launch events or post-work pints. 

As somebody who has been drinking mindfully (I’ll come to what that means in a minute) for four years, I can personally vouch for the negative impacts that alcohol can have, often setting me up for a day of low mood or bad anxiety. 

Mindful drinking is quite simply about being more conscious about what, when and how much we drink. It’s about considering the effects that alcohol has on us, and finding a more appropriate level of alcohol consumption to suit our individual circumstances. 

For me, as someone who has experienced depression and anxiety for many years, cutting back on alcohol has helped me significantly. I look back at those hungover mornings and I  certainly don’t miss them! 

When I first cut down I started with at least two alcohol-free days per week. But given how much better I felt without the booze, my alcohol-free days quickly doubled. Now, I barely drink it. In fact, since lockdown started in March, I’ve only drank on three occasions. 

Many people may have found themselves eating or drinking more over the lockdown period. And that was certainly what I was expecting to do myself. As somebody who lives alone and is currently working from home, I was concerned that the low mood and isolation I was experiencing might trigger a lapse in my eating disorder or cause me to seek solace in alcohol. But this hasn’t been the case. I put this down to the fact that, through mindful drinking, I’ve started to learn that the unhealthy relationship I’ve had with alcohol – and food too – has caused me to feel worse, not better. On the days I did have a drink, I would spend the next day feeling lethargic and flat. That certainly wasn’t going to help me in my current situation. As someone who suffers with depression, I also knew I had to look after myself in order to avoid a depressive episode sneaking up on me – something which can be utterly debilitating. 

I’ve always felt a pressure in the workplace to drink. Luckily, I now work with a team who are mainly mindful drinkers – our MD, Ruth, doesn’t drink at all and, as mentioned, I drink very little. But in previous roles I found that alcohol was always part and parcel of any staff social. In fact, more so, it was the aspect of getting together that everyone seemed to view as essential. 

But excitement, clocking off and booze can, if we’re not careful, be a toxic concoction. And this is something I believe we should watch out for as the excitement of socialising in the office after lockdown gears up. 

Having worked closely with HR teams over the years, I’ve heard lots of issues arising among staff with regards to alcohol. I’ve witnessed some of these first-hand too. 

I remember a few years ago going to an event at the o2 and a work group from another company were enjoying the free wine in the box next to us. They quickly became rowdy and ended in a punch-up. I understand that one of the team was disciplined as a result – the person whose face their fist connected with happened to be a customer. This isn’t especially unusual. 

Early on in my career, drinking was simply a regular activity. We were all relatively young and spent many a Thursday night on a pub crawl or in the local curry house. After a particularly boozy Christmas do I remember waking up with a horrific episode of beer fear. I was remembering flashes of what I said and being deeply embarrassed of my actions because, at the end of the day, I was ridiculously drunk with my work colleagues, not my best mates. And there is a difference there – especially once the office gossip starts up the next day. 

I also had to hang up on a work call once in the office because I needed to be sick. The shame you feel at how unprofessional you have been really doesn’t help the already mortified feelings. But what makes me even more uncomfortable looking back, is that everyone in my team, senior staff included, thought it was really funny. 

Of course, I’m not trying to be a party pooper, people should have the option to drink if they want to on a work’s night out. However, it shouldn’t have to be the main driver for a staff social, because not everyone drinks – and nobody should have to feel under pressure to explain their reasons behind this. Choosing not to drink is nobody else’s business. I went through a phase of not drinking when I was going through fertility treatment; I lost count of the number of times people offered me a drink and pressured me by saying ‘oh go on just have one’. When I said no, I was either told I was boring or outright asked if I was pregnant or something in a loud voice as if it was a joke.  It was a tough enough time and the workplace culture definitely didn’t help. 

So I’m not suggesting for one second that alcohol has to be removed from workplace parties and events. But I am suggesting that employers could think about other options. For example, a colleague told me that where they used to work there would be a Christmas party and a more healthy ‘summer social’ – which involved daytime activities and mocktail making. It provides something for everyone. 

While drinking with workmates isn’t a ‘trend’ or something that’s set to vanish any time soon, the number of people who are drinking mindfully or abstaining completely is rapidly growing. Employers need to cater for them too. 

After all, workplace events should be inclusive and fun for all. 

Tara is hosting an online panel discussion as part of the Mindful Drinking Festival on Friday 31st July entitled ‘Don’t Drink and Drive a Toxic Workplace Culture.’ Find out more and sign up to festival events by visiting www.mindfuldrinkingfestival.com

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