The interaction between alcohol and wellbeing: an HR and Legal Perspective

4 Oct 2017
Carrie Birmingham

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In some industries, the “work hard, play hard” culture has alcohol embedded in how people entertain clients and / or what they do in their downtime.  Given that start-ups need to be a fun place to work to help them attract talent, it seems natural they would weave alcohol into how they work. In some office designs, this extends as far as having an office bar.  This can mean that drinking is an accepted part of the culture.  However, what starts out as an intention to promote staff collegiality and wellbeing can sometimes have the reverse effect.

We need to remember that alcohol is a depressant.  While a glass of wine after a hard day might help you relax and get to know colleagues, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with.

Whilst the purist amongst us might argue we should ban alcohol, this is a parental stance.  A healthy culture encourages responsibility and so we instead need to ask:  is alcohol being served in a healthy and adult fashion, or is there a prevalence of talk and events that embeds heavy and/or binge drinking into the culture? This is a tightrope we need to walk, to create healthy cultures.

Carrie Birmingham of Crisis HR describes her experience of dealing with mental health issues in a former workplace: The company sought a non-paternalistic culture by providing their employees with tools to support themselves & each other.  As part of this ambition, an internal staff group was created with two main roles.  Firstly, to understand the current mental health of staff and secondly, to ensure ways of working were embedded in the culture to support people in all aspects of their mental health.  The company needed to build some parameters for what that meant, and to develop the ability to spot when it was having an unhealthy effect (on yourself or others).  This conversation made the company realise that managers did not understand how to look for signs of alcohol (or drugs) misuse, how to speak to the individual involved and / or what help was available.

As a result, there was a renewed focus on building managers’ awareness and capability to talk to their teams, with the intention of catching problems early and helping resolve problems before they got out of hand.   It also meant that the Group’s policies were adapted to give more specific guidance of what was expected in work social environments.

Jane Wheeler of Hine Legal highlights the importance of having a policy about alcohol and drug use as a framework only.  Many organisational policies focus on disciplining staff who are drunk at work but those organisations fail to intervene far earlier and enable people to get help well before it gets to this point.  Training managers to recognise the early warning signs of problems with alcohol dependency and to have open communication with staff is key. We often find businesses are afraid of having conversation because they don’t know what they can and can’t say.

Carrie Birmingham, Consultant, and Jane Wheeler, Partner, Hine Legal