When she was about to leave her Midwestern home for drama school in New York in the 1940s, actress Elaine Stritch’s father offered her some parenting advice. “Lainie,” she told him, “you’re not the same after two martinis.”
Good advice, then and now. But while awareness of the harm binge drinking can cause has grown in the intervening years, our relationship with alcohol hasn’t necessarily improved much. And the use (or abuse) of alcohol at work remains a live issue.
The CBI is just the latest organization to have his work-related and alcohol-fueled behavior examined in the light of day. And while the No 10 Partygate saga horrified people on a number of levels, it wasn’t just the blatant violation of Covid restrictions that caused upset, it was the excesses of drinking in a real workplace, and a rather important workplace. .
A new survey from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) suggests that, in the UK at least, our difficulties with alcohol at work continue. About a third of managers overall (33% of female managers, 26% of men) said they had witnessed harassment or other inappropriate behavior at work meetings.
CMI executive director Ann Francke says it may be necessary to limit the amount of drink offered at work parties or monitor events and behavior much more carefully. Alcohol “doesn’t have to be the main event,” she told the BBC. This approach makes sense: overemphasizing the “piss” factor is asking for trouble. But perhaps we also need to think a bit more about the role of alcohol and what it represents.
What really happens when we drink in a work environment? Organizational anthropologist John Curran says there are two main types of alcohol use in the workplace. There is traditional male drinking culture that is associated with power and misogyny – think Mad Men and, well, martinis. And then there’s drinking as a ritualized team-building exercise that’s supposed to enhance a sense of community at work. Both forms of behavior can be seen as control mechanisms, says Curran: “If you don’t show up, you’re not a team player.” Etc.
The other side event is the Christmas or farewell party, when excess seems almost to be encouraged, and some modest and temporary challenge to the existing hierarchy may take place, with junior staff mocking the most senior figures.
During the lockdown there were some (only partially successful) attempts to recreate community over drinks online. And since the lockdowns ended, many bosses have recognized the need to rebuild cohesion at work, even if many are still struggling to persuade people to spend more time in the office.
The culture of drinking at work runs deep in Britain. The home of the industrial revolution was also the home of thirsty, hardworking men who had earned themselves a drink. Alcohol has been a part of the job here for centuries. It would be hypocritical for a journalist to say otherwise. At the end of the working day during my first journalism job, in London over 30 years ago, many of us would almost automatically walk to the pub that was less than 100 meters from our desks. There was often drink at lunch, whether it was a business or social gathering. But I made good friends then who are still (drinking) friends today.
It’s not just journalists, of course. Some merchants in the city will still be ready for a drink after a busy day at work (one that starts very early). The good days can be celebrated, while in the less fortunate ones the sorrows can be drowned. Any sales team worth their salt will want to enjoy a big win. And that enjoyment will usually be marked (and enhanced) by the alcohol.
But perhaps the time has come to draw a line under all this. Many people really don’t want to deal with alcohol at work, for health, personal, or religious reasons. There are many more interesting (and non-alcoholic) drinks available today than ever before. The term “soft drinks” seems to contain a slight hint of disapproval. But if we can’t be adults and responsible with alcohol at work, maybe it’s one of those good things we can’t have.
“Perhaps alcohol should be banned in any work situation,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester business school. “Why not just enjoy without the alcohol?”
Professor Cooper reckons that alcohol could be used as a stress reliever or coping strategy, perhaps for more introverted people who don’t expect a social gathering. “But it’s better to identify the cause of the stress and treat it, rather than go back to drinking,” he says.
There are some reasons for hope, and it comes from the younger crowd. They seem to be drinking less than their older colleagues. It might be too expensive. But there is also evidence that different ways of socializing and a less obsessive worship of alcohol may be behind this.
A healthy and productive workplace shouldn’t need too many stimulants to function, beyond perhaps caffeine. Sometimes we are told to “bring your whole self to work.” But we should probably leave our hangovers at home.