I needed to edit a proposal, write a newsletter, and plan our social-media calendar. Instead, I found myself in a conference room, watching my coworkers awkwardly dance and clap along to Pharrell’s “Happy.” The executive director for our small community health program decided our team needed a mandatory healing and wellness mini-retreat hosted by his personal wellness coach. But I didn’t feel particularly healthy after the coach spent two hours leading us through a guided meditation, some random icebreakers, and a dance party. If anything, my blood pressure ticked up; I’d have to put in another late night just to meet my deadlines. The pinched, stricken looks on my colleagues’ faces told me that they were similarly strained. Our calendars were already filled with holiday parties, team lunches, and weekend barbecues hosted by our boss — and attendance was always “strongly encouraged.” Enough already.
I’m not the only one who is overwhelmed by the slow ooze of work-oriented obligations that are invading my personal time. Office party season — with its costume contests, Thanksgiving potlucks, and swanky holiday soirées — seems to start as soon as the first autumn leaf hits the ground. But workplace fun has expanded far beyond watching your boss get a little too loose after a whole lot of eggnog. Jordan, who worked as a spa director, recalls one supervisor who insisted on monthly morale boosters, which included mandatory salsa dancing, “Right there on the gym floor in front of all our members. We had no choice [but] to pair up with each other.” Her boss did manage to unify his team, just not in the way he expected. “We all loathed him,” Jordan says.
In a recent article, the BBC examined the “tyranny of forced fun at work,” laying out the pros and cons of office extracurriculars. Sure, management types can make the case that playing tug-of-war or busting a move with Jim from accounting can help foster stronger relationships between teammates and departments — but let’s be real: these interactions are far from organic. Occupational psychologists Peter Fleming and Andrew Sturdy studied exactly why employers might be so keen on so much “informal bonding” and found that fun and games can be a kind of cloak and dagger, hiding long hours and low wages under a veneer of employee perks like office parties and karaoke lunches. This enforced socialization smudges the lines between work life and social life until all life revolves around the cubicle farm.
For Anastasia*, one of the biggest frustrations in her job at a health care nonprofit isn’t her caseload, it’s finding the stamina to attend the obligatory luncheons, birthday parties, and holiday shindigs. These outings take her away from her clients during crucial office hours. “We’re expected to be at the Christmas party, and were told that if we don’t show up, we might as well not show up at work the next day,” she says. At the same time, she doesn’t receive comp or overtime pay for the extra hours she has to work. Legally, employers are allowed to say things like “attendance is strongly suggested;” but they’re required to pay non-exempt employees for any time spent on the job, even if "on the job" means "on the dance floor" once the office has closed for the day.
All this after-hours, “strongly recommended” socializing can also be very expensive. Anastasia’s boss picked an expensive restaurant for this year’s holiday party and every employee had to contribute $55 just to cover the costs. It’s a big blow to Anastasia’s budget and it comes after a steady drip of donations for birthday cakes and “family” lunches — as her boss likes to call them. It’s even worse when coworkers expect personal presents. Nancy, a former hospital administrator, likens her old colleagues to the clique from Heathers. Within her team, everyone was expected to buy an individual holiday gift for each person in the office, often at over $20 an item. One coworker told her that the gifts and parties were “the price for working at such a great place,” but for Nancy, “the holiday and birthday celebrations made that place toxic.”
Though many an Instagram post from a holiday party or interdepartmental field day are branded #workfam and industry leaders like Virgin cofounder Richard Branson trumpet the idea of treating staff like family, this assumes a false, forced intimacy between coworkers. And often, this forced intimacy is fueled by alcohol. When Jane*, a self-proclaimed introvert, worked for a beauty company, she was forced onto the events committee. These activities — seasonal socials and contests; a huge holiday party; poker tournaments; video game night; outings to sporting events; even a boat cruise — always included booze. “I was very aware of how much alcohol was emphasized,” Jane says. “Like we were in college.”
This erosion of barriers isn’t just about the momentary discomfort of hearing Jan from marketing drunkenly tell you how much she loves her boyfriend or seeing a meaner, more competitive side of Todd the receptionist — it can sometimes endow the “work fam” with all the darkness and dysfunction of actual blood relatives. Sasha*, a former IT help desk staffer, remembers one company-wide camping trip when workplace gossip took a decidedly nastier turn: Freed from the confines and mores of the actual office space, a group of colleagues, including her boss, asked her to name the person she hated most in the world. “[I felt] very caged,” she explains. “Everyone on the staff is waiting for my answer — and [my boss] kept pressing me. I'm sure he knew I'd like to say his name.” Sasha recalls sitting there, in the dark, shaking with indignation.
At its worst, “the tyranny of forced fun” can make going into work seem like starring in an outtake from Mean Girls or Animal House; it can turn gestures of genuine goodwill, like sharing a meal or exchanging gifts, into crass displays of one-upmanship. Of course, the managers and executives who want to call their employees “family” (or, at the very least, best friends for life) may truly believe that all the holiday parties and camping trips are creating a more engaged, cohesive workplace. Still, it doesn’t seem to be working. Per Gallup’s “Employee Engagement in the U.S.” poll, only 32% of us feel enthused about our jobs. It’s clear that we don’t want “healing and wellness mini-retreats,” game nights, or dance parties. We want to be challenged to do our best work and encouraged to innovate; we want to feel like our opinions matter and — most important — we want better, fairer wages. None of these things can be put on a Secret Santa list.