Questions about harmful workplace drinking culture in the UK seem old school – recall the big workplace drinking rethink of 2019 whereby lauded bastion of London finance booze culture, Lloyd's, banned alcohol consumption between nine and five. That concerns are still being raised, in 2022, about excessive alcohol in the workplace (in the highest office in the country, no less, per Sue Gray's January 2021 report) might come as a surprise.
The WeWork era pushed workplace drinking to its limits with the introduction of unlimited free beer taps (and their subsequent removal in 2020). In 2017 I visited the office of music magazine NME for a meeting and was offered a pint from the 'office pub', an olde worlde mahogany bar sandwiched between the desks. Throughout the 2010s, companies like Dropbox offered 'Whiskey Fridays' and countless more Soho types advertised 'happy hours'. With all the hindsight of 2022, it screams 'self-medicate your shit day away'. Though this brand of glossy office perk is now dated, it seems the drinking culture itself has persisted in some organisations – like parliament. But is No. 10 just behind the times?
"I think we certainly see workplaces still providing free drinks at things. I go to conferences where it is common to see drinks being given out at the end of the day," Lucy Holmes, director of policy at Alcohol Change UK, told R29 UK in an interview before Christmas. "And it is also common not to see decent quality alcohol alternatives." As employers face the considerable feat of luring workers back to the office, they’ve had to get creative. In September 2021 the City of London Corporation fell back on free beer to tempt people back into the office.
The two-year, on-again-off-again office break has given many of us pause to reflect on the office drinking culture we used to take part in and decide if it's what we want to do as we return to workplaces in 2022. A Drinkaware survey conducted with YouGov between August and September 2020 states that just 34% of respondents prefer work events that involve alcohol. The same survey concludes: "Those working from home are more likely to have spent more (25%) and bought larger quantities (31%) [of alcohol] as well as those who are finding work more stressful (27% and 31%)." Perhaps, then, we have simply moved workplace drinks into the home workspace. Whether workplace drinking continues to be a problem as more of us return to office-based working in 2022 remains to be seen.
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore is a liver specialist and chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance. "There is a sinister side to some office drinking culture which puts pressure onto individuals to drink more if they want to progress," he tells R29 UK. "This is worrying because it creates an environment which makes it difficult to identify when someone is developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol."
Drinking is so hardwired into a lot of career paths that sometimes you can't win either way. If you don't drink, you're often excluded. If you drink too much and embarrass yourself, you're also excluded.
Millie Gooch, Sober Girls SOCIETY
Sandy, 23, works as a project manager in digital marketing in London. She has been at various companies since entering the workforce aged 18. One advertising team ping-ponged back and forth to the office during the pandemic and was particularly notorious for drinking while there, she tells R29 UK. "Although I didn’t mind joining in, it was noticeable that some people were uncomfortable with [the level of drinking] and would leave early, or avoid it in some way. In turn, that made me feel uncomfortable because it felt like I was encouraging and conforming." Another key factor highlighted by the Sue Gray report: there should be "easier ways for staff to raise concerns informally, outside of the line-management chain". It’s important, then, that shame or blame isn't directed towards employees for joining in with the drinking culture when they feel unsafe to question it.
Going out for a drink or having a celebratory desk beer with colleagues isn't a bad thing in itself. "In other roles, I also saw drinking as a good opportunity to become closer with co-workers," says Sandy. "When I was an intern, for instance, going for a drink after work helped me feel confident and less judged, allowing us all to let our guards down." The issue seems to be when alcohol is used to make up for a stressful week or worse, justify it. As a blog on flexible work website Juggle puts it: "If your company relies on alcohol to drive socialising – either because they don’t want to search for alternatives, or they’re dismissive of the risks and side-effects – then your company doesn’t have a drinking problem, it has a culture problem." In other words, when alcohol becomes pervasive, invasive and exclusionary in the workplace, it's a red flag.
"Businesses should protect their employees from alcohol harm by embracing an inclusive, nonjudgemental culture which nurtures physical and mental wellbeing," advises Prof. Sir Ian. "Training can also give managers the confidence and knowledge to identify when employees are affected by alcohol harm and need professional support."
Millie Gooch, 30, is a freelance author and content creator and the founder of Sober Girl Society. She decided to go sober when she was 26. "As a freelancer, I work at different offices all the time so I see a lot of different workplace cultures but most of them do involve a fair amount of alcohol," she tells R29 UK. "Now that I have been sober for a longer time, I’m really confident turning down drinks and leaving parties but I did used to feel quite uncomfortable because I wanted to be involved (making connections is how I get more freelance jobs) but people often saw me as weird or an outsider because I didn’t drink."
"In my personal experience, I was always drinking and subsequently embarrassing myself at work parties, which I don’t think helped my career," Millie continues. "Even a lot of my drinking outside the workplace affected my work inside the workplace, i.e. being hungover and unproductive. The problem is, drinking is so hardwired into a lot of career paths that sometimes you can’t win either way. If you don’t drink, you’re often excluded. If you drink too much and embarrass yourself, you’re also excluded."
Office design became increasingly bar-like in the run-up to the pandemic (think: pool tables and popcorn machines). Now, homes are increasingly office-like (think: carving out space for a desk in your bedroom). The boundaries determining how we move through these spaces have blurred. This mirrors Downing Street's dual function as both office and home, as Sue Gray outlines in her report: "No 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office in 70 Whitehall are closely interconnected, with staff moving regularly between the two buildings as part of their daily work. The Prime Minister’s flat and the Downing Street garden are in close proximity to the offices and serve a dual office and private purpose."
Today, office design experts like The Office Group are decentralising alcohol in their spaces – instead promoting movie theatres, gyms and living room-esque comfort – but many of the spaces still have bars and if they don't, they give off an informal, somehow overly familiar presence. Maybe in 2022 employees don’t want an office that functions as a fitness suite, or a movie theatre, or a bar. Perhaps what many workers would prefer from a workplace in 2022 is simple: professionalism, a safe and comfortable place to sit, the option to go out for a drink should you wish to, boundaries (both physical and otherwise), and clear and effective routes to report bad behaviour – not done over a glass of conciliatory prosecco.