Alcohol in the workplace: is it time for a change?

Andrew Misell | February 2022 | 9 minutes

Is it time to call a halt to the macho culture of long hours and alcohol that still prevails in some sectors?

There was a time when it was fairly normal to go to the pub on weekday lunchtimes, especially towards the end of the working week. Those days are long gone for most of us, and with good reason. Workplace drinking didn’t just cause productivity to take a dip in the afternoons. It also created exclusive workplaces, based on an assumption that alcohol lubricated professional relationships and that those who didn’t join in were a bit boring.

But, although drinking on the job is generally frowned upon these days, there are sectors where alcohol is still accepted as part of workplace culture, and even expected by some. British politics seems to be one of those sectors. It’s nearly nine years since our predecessor charity Alcohol Concern reported that one in four of MPs believed that the UK Parliament had an unhealthy drinking culture. What surprised some people at the times was that only a quarter of them thought there was a problem. Even during the pandemic year of 2020, it was reported that £280,000 was spent on alcohol in the Lords’ and Commons’ bars.

A similar pattern of drinking seems to have been occurring in some UK Government departments. In January this year, former Downing Street special advisor Sonia Khan claimed that “drinks sessions are seen as routine and low risk” amongst some senior Ministers and their staff, adding that, “before now, they were never picked up by the media, and if it weren’t for Covid-19, no one would know about them”. Her assessment has been echoed by others who remember workplace drinking in Whitehall under Prime Ministers of all stripes, going back decades.

Should 2022 be the year that all “professional workplaces”, including political workplaces, join the rest of us in alcohol free work?

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Khan’s revelations is her description of the nature of the drinking taking place: “It wasn’t a daily knees-up with people getting blind drunk; but more a form of gentle day drinking. A drink or two between meetings, a quick trip to the local…If the week had started really badly, one team had ‘prosecco Tuesdays’ to drown their sorrows”. In a similar vein, Gordon Brown’s former Press Secretary, Damian McBride, has referred to alcohol as “the fuel that allowed me to do incredibly long hours.” And that really brings us to the nub of the matter: the strange and dysfunctional marriage between high-status, high-stress jobs and alcohol.

It’s not an issue that’s unique to politicians. A 2016 survey of MPs, published in the BMJ, found that their level of risky drinking was higher than that of the general population but “comparable with that of people with similar income and job status”. That suggests a bigger problem: a broader alcohol-fuelled culture in sectors that prize long hours as an indicator of career commitment. Former lawyer Emma Beddington recently recalled her first experience of “a corporate law rite of passage: the fabled all-nighter”, a meeting she described as “surreally, incomprehensibly long” with “no progress over the duration of several meals, many hours, and many more spreadsheets”.

If her experiences are in any way typical, it’s not surprising that a 2020 survey by the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society of England and Wales found that 93% of young lawyers had felt stressed in their role in the preceding month, and that “alcohol was being used as a coping mechanism for dealing with work pressures”. The report also noted that juniors felt “pressure to consume alcohol to show that they can fit in with the team, socialise well and secure their future career progression”. Have we really got ourselves into a situation in which a particular, dangerous, addictive substance is being treated as essential to career progression?

Using alcohol as “the fuel” that allows us “to do incredibly long hours” is no way to run a company … or a country.

Perhaps it is now time, for the good of us all, to call a halt to this merry-go-round of exhaustion and inebriation. Using alcohol as “the fuel” that allows us “to do incredibly long hours” is no way to run a company … or a country. There’s bound to be some resistance to any such change, particularly amongst those who have become perhaps too used to alcohol and drinking cultures. In response to the Law Society report mentioned above, one senior lawyer warned against being “too prescriptive about alcohol intake”. One current member of the House of Lords has even suggested, only a little tongue-in-cheek, that “a lot of what goes wrong [in politics] now is due to Ministers being too sober and too energetic, and thinking up wheezes that they’d forget about if only they had a couple of large drinks”.

In some ways, Sue Gray was very clear and direct when she said that “the excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time”. But it’s interesting to note that she didn’t go as far as saying that the consumption of alcohol in the workplace is inappropriate per se – even though, for most of us, cracking open a beer at our desk, till, or workbench is likely to lead to us being whisked off to a private room for a serious chat with our manager.

After work drinks are one thing, but should 2022 be the year that all “professional workplaces”, including political workplaces, join the rest of us in alcohol free work?

Alcohol Change UK is the leading provider of consultancy and training services on alcohol harm to both individuals and organisations.

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