A pandemic could prompt reassessment of the role of alcohol at work

Discussions about alcohol in the workplace were already influenced by societal stigma and stereotypes, but the pandemic has brought the topic to the fore for many employers, the nonprofit Bee Sober co-founders said. in the UK to attendees of the 2021 Society for Human Resource Management annual conference. .

Alexandria Hannah Walker and Lisa Joanne Elsworth shared their own experiences as occasional drinkers. Years ago, neither of them considered their drinking to be a problem, Walker said, although they found themselves constantly comparing their habits to those of their peers.

“We weren’t drinking in the morning, we weren’t drinking in the week, we had jobs that we respected,” she said. “To the extent that anyone would have known […] we didn’t have a drinking problem. We were just normal drinkers for years, never considered by ourselves or anyone else to be alcoholics or even addicts. “

Walker said she drank to cope with her life, including the stress of her job. For Elsworth, drinking was a way to “disconnect” from both work and parenthood. What had turned into a casual night out with friends turned into a weekly Friday night ritual.

The two quickly had conversations with co-workers about alcohol and the feeling of “needing a drink” to cope, Elsworth continued. This led to a mutual realization that their workplaces did not provide a comfortable place to discuss alcohol and its role in their lives.

“Even if we realized that our drinking was becoming a problem for us, which neither of us did at the time, there would have been no way to let that drop into a conversation,” he said. said Elsworth. “At work, we never wanted to be seen as an alcoholic or someone with a drinking problem in what seemed like a workplace filled with normal drinkers.”

This understanding is essential, Walker said, because alcohol can become a problem in the workplace. Even for occasional drinkers, a hangover can lead to absenteeism, presenteeism, underperformance, mood swings, and a variety of other outcomes. Additionally, the need for coworkers to cover affected team members can create additional stress.

“People who don’t drink alcohol are really worried about telling others for fear of being labeled or judged,” Walker said. “It also means that when conversations about alcohol come up in the staff room and could potentially trigger a trigger for a staff member, they won’t have the confidence to speak up and say, ‘can we talk? something else? “Because they just don’t want to be labeled or stereotyped as alcoholics.”

Not such a stress relief after all

Stigma in the workplace is not the only reason employers may need to pay attention to alcohol and other drug use in the near future.

A study published in December 2020 by the National Institutes of Health found that 60% of American adults surveyed reported increased alcohol consumption compared to what they consumed before the pandemic, and about 46% of that contingent cited increased stress as the reason for the increase.

Employees may think that a drink can help them relax from daily stressors, but alcohol can actually increase baseline cortisol levels, according to Walker. While drinking alcohol can relieve anxiety in the short term, it can also lead to increased anxiety levels in the long term.

A better alternative for stress management might be exercise, Walker said, even something as simple as a long walk. For those with anxiety, she and Elsworth recommended making to-do lists to help organize work activities. Even a simple chat, like a question about weekend plans, can help team members feel connected at work.

“It’s a personal conversation, it can make someone feel really, really valued,” Walker said. “They might not have that experience outside of work, so the only connection they could have is you and your colleagues in this staff room. We have to make sure it’s a positive experience. “

Co-workers may also want to listen for signs of more serious drinking behaviors. For example, if an employee complains of memory loss after drinking, “it could be a sign of a drinking problem,” Walker said.

Why should HR care?

Employers should keep in mind that health isn’t the only reason an employee may want to abstain from alcohol, Elsworth said. Religious, cultural and personal factors may also come into play. Whatever the reasons an employee avoids it, alcohol can negatively impact the culture of the workplace in some cases.

“As a workplace, socializing in places where alcohol is the only option impacts inclusiveness,” Elsworth said. “It increases the stigma for those of us who choose a sober lifestyle and it definitely keeps people isolated and afraid to ask for help if they need it.”

One of the most important things HR professionals can do is challenge the stigma of those who avoid drinking, including the misconception that anyone who chooses not to drink is alcoholic. . Employers can facilitate conversations to lessen expectations that workers consume alcohol for fun or relaxation after work, Elsworth said. Avoiding phrases like “you look like you need a glass of wine” can help, she added.

Work events are also an opportunity to promote inclusion. “There is nothing worse than going to a business event or a party and being offered orange juice or water in a plastic cup because you say ‘I don’t drink “” Walker said. “There are a lot of options. Even if you serve the orange juice in a champagne flute so that people can participate, it is just that mindfulness.”

Managers and co-workers may be able to recognize warning signs, such as frequent lateness, a smell of alcohol, or mood swings. These aren’t always indicators of problems with alcohol, and it can be uncomfortable to discuss drinking patterns with employees, but HR doesn’t need to make it a taboo subject, Walker said.

“If you can see that someone is having a hard time, start by having an open and positive conversation with them,” Elsworth said, noting that HR professionals need to maintain a human approach when engaging in conversations about Alcohol consumption. “We know you’re there to do a job, but you can’t do it right when the people who need your help are too afraid to ask you.”

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