Tippling point: why employers should welcome the rise of ‘mindful drinking’

The so-called sober-curious movement is gaining momentum, especially among generation Z. Knowing the impact of drinking on productivity, should business call time on alcohol’s integral role in British working culture?

Work Drinks

Waiting at the airport in a daze after yet another boozy industry junket, Julia Linehan experienced a moment of clarity amid the pain: she had no more hangovers left in her. 

On returning home, the founder and CEO of PR agency The Digital Voice took a course combining psychotherapy and hypnotherapy, from which she “emerged saying ‘I choose to never drink again’”. She hasn’t touched a drop ever since. 

Linehan isn’t alone. Her WhatsApp group, Sober Party Industry Lads and Ladies (Spill), has attracted 150 members. This serves as a supportive community for those trying to moderate their drinking while attending the traditionally alcohol-soaked events on the sector’s calendar. 

The emergence of Spill indicates a maturing in her industry’s views on booze. Part of this could be down to the outlook of its newest entrants. Linehan has noticed that the 20-somethings she employs have a “take it or leave it” approach to alcohol – quite the contrast from the prevailing attitude when she was their age.

Research does suggest that gen Z is leading the way when it comes to abstinence and mindful drinking, which Bupa defines as “paying more attention to what and how much you drink. The idea is that this can reduce mindless drinking, where you perhaps drink more than you intend to.”

Although a survey published by the NHS in December 2022 reported that 55% of adults in England had consumed alcohol in the week before they were polled, 38% of respondents aged between 16 and 24 hadn’t taken a drink in the preceding 12 months. On TikTok, which remains a hugely popular social network with that age group, the #sobercurious hashtag has racked up more than 600 million views.

How alcohol culture can affect the bottom line

While there are several reasons why people might want to moderate their drinking or avoid alcohol entirely, many simply feel that it makes them more productive. In a survey of 3,400 UK workers in 2019, the Institute of Alcohol Studies found that 9% had attended work either inebriated or hungover (exhibiting “alcohol-related presenteeism”) in the preceding six months. They reported themselves to be an average of 39% less productive on those days. Previous studies had estimated alcohol’s productivity toll on UK plc at £7bn a year. This newer research calculated an additional cost approaching £1.4bn. 

Alcohol is a social facilitator. It creates an atmosphere of camaraderie

While it’s a problem wherever it occurs, excessive alcohol consumption can be normalised by employers with unhealthy attitudes to drinking. Some business leaders could be jeopardising their firms’ productivity if they don’t address the issue.

The pros and cons of bonding with booze

But much-needed changes are afoot in business. A growth in awareness of the need for inclusivity has coincided with several high-profile office scandals, prompting employers to attempt a change of culture regarding alcohol. 

There has been a decline in boozy lunchtime meetings, for instance, reports Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, innovation and strategy director at management consultancy Behave. But after-hours drinking, either informally with colleagues or at work-related events, remains common.

“It is a social facilitator, especially in cultures that tend to be a bit more inhibited,” she says. “It creates an atmosphere of camaraderie.” 

Alcohol clearly has its uses in breaking the ice and fostering a sense of belonging. Yet, conversely, the desire to fit in the team and get ahead can also compel people to drink in corporate settings even when they know it will harm them in other ways. 

“If you didn’t do those things, you just weren’t party to half the conversations and didn’t understand the power dynamics,” says Paul* of his time working at a law firm in the City of London. 

An alcoholic whose condition was exacerbated by his employer’s drinking culture, Paul managed to sober up. He decided that he had to put himself “outside the group that makes late-night decisions” to avoid falling off the wagon. 

He adds: “I’m OK with my choices, but there’s still a lot of pressure on the youngsters to conform.”

How leaders can influence acceptable limits

A survey published by charity Drinkaware last year revealed that 15% of private sector workers felt an expectation on them to consume alcohol at employer-organised events, with 4.6% feeling pressured to do so by their line managers. 

There’s certainly an element of following the leader, according to Linehan, who says: “The teams I led when I was a big drinker were absolutely mirror images of me.” 

Business leaders seeking to moderate alcohol consumption in their organisations can set a good example in numerous ways, from modelling mindful drinking themselves to setting a lower limit on the company credit card when putting it behind the bar. 

They may sometimes need to be more assertive than that, argues Dobra-Kiel, who says: “Even if your leader doesn’t drink too much, if they don’t intervene when your friend has had their fifth drink, they’re effectively saying ‘yeah, this is fine’.”

Explicit policies and conversations can also help to guide employees’ choices. Paul, who is now a CEO, encourages his staff to finish their networking activities at 8.30pm, for instance. 

“No good comes from taking clients on late nights out,” he says. 

The Alcohol Health Network further advocates strong messaging concerning where employees can find help if they’re struggling to moderate their drinking – and training for line managers to spot and address problems early.

Where inclusivity meets productivity 

Promoting a healthier attitude towards alcohol at work could be as simple as choosing activities and locations more carefully when organising social events. So says Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, chief people officer at accountancy firm Gravita.

“You don’t have to go and hit the pub,” she stresses. “You need to create events that are going to appeal to the cross-section of people you have.” 

The company recently hosted a pizza and ping-pong evening, but there are myriad social activities available that don’t require alcohol. Corporate cycling events, courtesy of Just Pedal, have become popular among financial services firms; Sculpd’s virtual pottery workshops have been lauded by team leaders at X and Dyson; and a foraging course with Wild Food UK went down well with employees at Google. 

Such shared experiences can replace alcohol as a social lubricant and provide their own foundation for team bonding – something that academic research has identified as a factor correlating with greater productivity

Should we just let adults be adults?

Some employers believe it’s better to accept the inevitable when faced with the UK’s deep-seated drinking culture. When Bolton-based marketing agency The Audit Lab introduced “hangover days” in 2019 – letting employees work at home if they were feeling the worse for wear – its novel policy split opinion. While some praised the perk as a commitment to a culture of honesty, others argued that it endorsed heavy drinking. 

No good comes from taking clients on late nights out

Covid-era hybrid working policies have since afforded millions the same privilege, except that hungover employees can log in remotely without needing to disclose their condition. Autonomy over where to work can improve efficiency. For instance, just over half (51%) of UK employees feel more productive when working at home, according to research published by cloud communications firm RingCentral. But, where alcohol-induced absenteeism is reduced, alcohol-induced presenteeism has the potential to thrive. 

If employees are drinking to the point where it harms their productivity, there may be numerous underlying issues at play, notes Dobra-Kiel. One could be that there is a significant “stress factor within your job, so you need to release the stress”.

Shifting to a healthier culture

Linehan’s preferred method of reducing stress has been to ingrain wellbeing into her firm’s culture. A four-and-a-half-day remote working week helps employees to maintain a healthy work/life balance, resulting in a business with “high output and high energy”, she says.

While on that subject, Linehan notes that achieving sobriety gave her the ability to work “from five in the morning till five in the evening”. Soon after giving up alcohol, she billed for 32 days’ work in one month. That was January, which has “31 days – and they’re not all meant for working”. 

Realising that this lurch towards workaholism was another threat to her wellbeing, she went on a hiring spree. Over the past four years, the business has grown from one employee to 32 and its revenue has tripled. 

Reducing alcohol consumption won’t catapult everyone to the same levels of achievement, of course. But, for business leaders intent on improving productivity in their firms, losing the booze could be a measure worth taking.

* Name changed to maintain confidentiality.