It’s time to rethink our relationship with alcohol and work Christmas celebrations

christmas-party-hybrid alcohol

Christmas parties will look a little different this year. Source: Unsplash/Eugene Zhyvchik.

It’s the holiday season again, which sets a similar scene in offices around the Western world: cheesy Christmas music is dominating the team’s Spotify playlist; worn-out faces are everywhere —recovering from black Friday/Cyber Monday/EOQ/Christmas planning hell; and free-flowing booze is as present as lazily flung tinsel.

Alcohol has become an intrinsic part of our work culture, synonymous with celebrating good results; commiserating bad results; sealing deals; building team morale; and of course, the annual work Christmas party. While some people may be cheering for the arrival of the holiday ‘spirit’, not everyone may be on the same page — and they might even be silently suffering as a consequence.

To assume most people want to drink alcohol is understandable — we’ve grown up in a culture where alcohol usually plays a central role in good times and bad (and everything in between). A reported 20% of Aussies binge drink weekly, and during the holidays, the amount we drink on average doubles. But what’s the big deal if we’re all having a good time? Well… not all of us are. In fact, one in eight adults struggle with alcohol addiction at some point in their life. That means, it’s very likely someone on your team right now is struggling and you didn’t even realise.

So let’s paint a scenario: You’re a team leader and you want to ‘reward’ your team for a big year, so you offer to shout everyone at the local bar. That’s a kind and well-meant gesture for sure. And after all, drinking is a choice, right? So if a member of your team doesn’t feel like drinking, they can just say ‘no’, right?

You’re right, they can. But how easy have we made that decision for them? There’s a very good chance that they’ll be asked why they’re not drinking — and their answer might not be something they’re comfortable sharing (maybe they’re struggling; maybe it’s part of their religion or culture; maybe they’re in recovery; maybe they’re pregnant; maybe they have some health problems). There’s also a very good chance that they’ll feel left out of the team and culture if they don’t join in.

Either way, peer pressure has automatically entered the scene — and this is one of the most common contributors to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

Anxiously navigating the “why aren’t you drinking?” question is something pregnant women in the workforce have been battling for decades. But with the rise of the sober curious movement and health consciousness in younger generations, many more individuals than we expect are trying to make a change to their relationship with alcohol. And so it’s incredibly important that we start to foster work cultures that are more inclusive of different drinking choices.

Everyone has a role to play in this, but as with most big cultural shifts — it starts from the top down.

Shame and stigma play a major role in someone being able to seek and access support for problem drinking. This is just one of the many reasons why it takes people, on average, 22 years to get help. It’s also why the damage of work drinking culture often goes unnoticed — no one wants to raise their hand and talk about. So, if you’re already thinking ‘this can’t be anyone on my team’, please think again.

This isn’t a callout to ban drinking or to force sober workplaces. This about raising awareness of the very secret — but very real — struggle millions of people are facing this holiday season. Alcohol will probably always play a part in our work celebrations, but it should never be the life of the party. Alcohol does not equal fun. Good times equal fun.

So before you go and book that open bar for your team, ask if there is something else you can do where alcohol is not the main event. Team dinner? Team trivia? Team treasure hunt?

Oh and next time you hear a member of your team ask someone “why aren’t you drinking?” jump in and answer for them…”Because it’s their damn choice and I salute them.”

This article was first published on LinkedIn

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