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Office Drinking Culture: Why It’s Toxic and How to Navigate It

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Whether it’s the company Christmas party, an office after-hours get-together, or casual Fridays, drinking has become a significant part of some offices’ cultures. From the movies we watch to the happy hours we structure our days around, drinking is so prevalent in our lives that we sometimes forget how harmful it can be for some.

People choose not to drink for a variety of reasons — family legacies in alcoholism, personal experiences with alcohol dependency, a friend died due to someone’s drunk driving, they have a DUI on their record, they’re pregnant and not ready to announce it, they’re on medications that don’t mix with alcohol, or the least accepted reason of all: they simply don’t want to. If they find that their friends don’t respect their choices, they can abstain from outings that involve drinking. But when drinking culture enters their office, they aren’t as free to leave. They’re trapped and pressured to participate.

There are healthy ways to offer alcohol in a professional setting, and there are ways to fight against the culture if you’re stuck in a toxic one. In this article, we’re going to discuss both.

The Rise of Office Drinking Culture

Businesses have started to compete with each other for candidates by cultivating a relaxed, easy-going office culture. While no one can compete with Google’s exotic and thrilling office perks, smaller businesses try to bring that sense of productive fun, and easy-going vibe to their own offices with things like an extensive coffee bar, a gym, a stocked kitchen, or bean bag chairs in meeting rooms. Offering booze is just another facet of these attempts at staying relevant and hip.

In the United States, drinking at work is just about as old as American employment. Some jobs used to be paid in brandy and frequenting saloons on a break was common.

In the 1970s, drinking in the office reached its peak. It wasn’t uncommon for an executive to have a two-hour, three-martini lunch and then toss back some beers in the afternoon. This practice fell out of favor when drinking on the job developed an unprofessional look. However, drinking wine was still seen as a classy activity.

However, this resurgence in the modern workplace has taken hold with a force, and it’s almost no wonder. Popular media frequently features drinking on the job. From Archer, to Sex and the City, to James Bond, it’s sexy to get the job done with a drink in hand.

In addition to media representation, there are different subsets of alcohol culture that normalize the practice of drinking and drinking frequently: seeing the wine mom/aunt figure, having a cold one with the boys, and the college experience revolving around partying.

In efforts to stay with the times and win the favor of future and current employees, companies have adopted alcohol culture and brought it into the office.

For better or worse.

When Office Drinking Becomes Toxic

There are certainly healthy ways to include alcohol in your office culture. The key to creating a safe space for people to safely consume alcohol is by offering the freedom of choice. Normalize people just getting seltzer. Offer non-alcoholic options in the fridge. Don’t choose an outing that relies solely on drinking.

While offering these alternatives seems like common sense, many offices simply just don’t think about the impact they have on their employees who choose not to imbibe.

Here are some of the common ways that offices fail their employees when it comes to drinking:

  • “Are you sure? Come on, just have one!” If an employee says no thank you, move on. Don’t ask why. Don’t ask if they’re sure. Just ask what you can get them instead. While it might seem like you’re just trying to be a good host, that “no” could have been extremely difficult for them to say. If someone struggles with alcohol dependency, their brain is already telling them to drink; adding peer pressure only makes abstaining harder. If you try to wear them down, they might lose their resolve. If they do change their mind later of their own accord, they will certainly tell you.
  • Having the boss ask people what they want. If the person at the head of the office is asking you what you want, you might feel more pressure to imbibe; you don’t want to be the one who’s left out and seen as a vibe killer. Try to have someone else in charge of pouring drinks or getting other people’s orders so if someone needs to say no, they won’t feel like they’re hurting their boss’s perception of them.
  • Having the event solely fixate on drinking. The more the event revolves around drinking, the more ostracized someone will feel if they don’t participate. Instead of just going to happy hour and getting drinks, try going to a bowling alley or some other local attraction. Make sure everyone can participate, whether or not they drink. If you do end up going to a pub, make sure you get some appetizers so people who choose not to drink can still do something with their hands and participate.
  • Never involve alcohol in an interview. Sometimes during an extended interview, the interviewer might take the potential employee out to lunch. If you’re the employer, do not order alcohol. Doing so could put someone abstaining in a very uncomfortable situation. During an interview, the hopeful interviewee is in a very vulnerable position; they really want this job, so they might try to fit in and order a drink as well, even though it’s not in their best interest. Don’t put any pressure on them to match what their future boss is doing. Once hired, they should feel more comfortable saying no at future work events.

How Employees Can Fight the Toxic Environment

Sometimes you aren’t in a position in your company to truly control the culture from a top-down perspective.

However, there are ways that you can help take control of the situation and your responses to those around you.

  • Offer to plan outings. If you would feel more comfortable being in control of the environment and events for the evening, volunteer to be the coordinator! If there isn’t already someone designated for this job, your boss will be happy to take it off their own plate.
  • Decide on your go-to excuse ahead of time. Inevitably, someone will disrespect your boundaries and ask why you’re not drinking. You can certainly say it’s none of your business, but you might feel uncomfortable with the ambiguity that creates, as it leaves space for rumors to grow. Come up with and rehearse your go-to excuse so that you aren’t left on the spot in case someone rudely asks. Some good go-to ones that should shut down the conversation include:
    • It has a bad interaction with my allergy medicine.
    • I’ve tried everything and just don’t like the taste. It upsets my stomach, so I just don’t risk it and don’t drink at all.
    • I’ve got to drive home tonight and I’d just rather be sober.
    • I promised someone I wouldn’t drink (It’s okay if that person is you).
    • I’m trying out a clean-eating diet and it cuts out any alcohol.
  • Be an ally to other coworkers. If you choose to drink, you have the ability to help normalize when others choose not to drink. When you see someone not drinking, make sure that they have other options. If you see someone prying or harassing them because they choose not to drink, step in to say coworker to coworker, it’s none of our business to ask. Make sure that they feel included in the conversation and in the event. Whether or not someone drinks shouldn’t determine whether or not they bring life to the party.

Fighting a Toxic Drinking Culture

It’s hard to fight a toxic office drinking culture on your own. If you currently choose not to drink, you might find it easier to inform one of your close work friends before the event. If you trust them with that information, they can help cover you in case other coworkers decide to pry or force drinks on you.

For some people, living a sober life is by far the healthiest option. Take control of your own choices and don’t let others influence you to make choices that aren’t in your best interest. If you’re scared to say no, maybe you should find an office with a healthier, less pressured culture.

If you feel that you are struggling with alcoholism, reach out to one of the many hotlines available.

Recovery is possible.

Sarah Margaret Henry
Published in Business, Featured Articles

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