As the Christmas office party season starts to ramp up, it makes sense for employers to take a long, hard look at their workplace drinking culture, the effect this may be having on health and wellbeing and inclusivity, and whether they’re being clear enough about what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour.
Employee health and wellbeing – employers need to be clear about the alcohol ground rules
The Christmas workplace party season is almost upon us. While no one wants to be a Scrooge about employees letting their hair down after a tough year, this is a good moment for employers to step back and reflect on their workplace drinking culture and its potential effect on employee health and wellbeing, productivity and inclusion.
For much the same reason, it is no coincidence that the charity Alcohol Concern has just ran its Alcohol Awareness Week at the end of November (19th-25th).
The theme of this year’s awareness week was “change”. In other words, how people can change their drinking habits and behaviours in an environment where, as the charity put it, “too often drinking is an expectation, not a choice”.
Although employers were not specifically singled out by Alcohol Concern, within many organisations alcohol remains an integral – and all-too-often expected – part of workplace socialising, networking and relationship building, not just at Christmas but all year round.
To an extent, this is not necessarily “a problem” – alcohol consumption is, after all, part of the fabric of our society and has been for thousands of years.
But against the backdrop of increasingly multi-generational workplaces – with under-25s drinking less than their older colleagues – and workplaces becoming increasingly diverse and multi-cultural it does make sense for employers to be reviewing their attitude and approach to and expectations around drinking.
In essence, it is a good idea for employers to be looking at what their use of alcohol says about them as an organisation, the potential impact this may be having on inclusivity and productivity and, more widely, whether (by default or design) they are in effect condoning bad or damaging health and wellbeing habits.
Key to this is revisiting your drugs and alcohol policy. Does it properly reflect the demographic of your workforce or is it out of date? Is it well-understood and/or well-communicated? Do your employees fully understand what is considered to be acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace in the context of alcohol consumption (either on or off the premises) and/or drugs? How consistently is your policy policed and enforced?
Clearly, there are going to be different parameters for different organisations and sectors, with employers working in safety-critical environments, for example, needing to have a policy operating at a completely different level to those that are not.
There is also an argument that, especially at this time of year, it can be helpful to widen this review exercise to encompass general conduct at Christmas events.
The HR website XpertHR, for example, published research in October suggesting that, while nearly all employers were this year planning a workplace Christmas celebration, only one in three has a policy to ensure good conduct at Christmas events.
Clear parameters and expectations
The key, as Optima Health Chief Medical Officer Dr Lucy Wright emphasises, is clarity and consistency, so that employees and managers alike are clear where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie and therefore this can be appropriately managed.
“Christmas parties and events are a great way for employers to say ‘thank you’ to their teams for all their hard work over the year and, for many, it will be a time for indulgence, if not sometimes over-indulgence,” she says.
“But, especially if the event is during working hours, it is important employers do not forget that employees are still ‘at work’ and representing their organisation, and therefore normal rules should apply around aggressive, harassing, disruptive or boorish behaviour.
“More widely, especially given our growing understanding of the links between alcohol consumption and long-term ill health, it makes sense to reflect on how much, or even whether, alcohol needs to be part of your Christmas event or celebration.
“For many employees who either cannot or do not want to drink, a Christmas event where alcohol and getting drunk is not the be-all and end-all may be a refreshing change – and will also mean you’re saying ‘thank you’ to everyone across the board,” she says.