In my first job after uni I worked for a construction company as a site secretary while they put up a new building at Marylebone Station in London. Best job I ever had. A thousand men on site and me. But I digress.
The culture back then in the mid-1990s was to go to the pub and down a couple of pints at lunch. We’d go back to our desk pretty tipsy and often after work we’d also go for one or two. Or 14.
When I came back to Sydney in my mid-20s, some of the best nights I’ve ever had involved a few drinks after work on a Friday and then carrying on after that, cementing lifelong friendships and a heap of fun memories.
Times have changed. For me, working from home means no more Friday drinks – although I can often hear the call of the wine bottle on Friday night, especially if it’s been a tough week.
It got me thinking. Have I changed, or has the culture changed? Is drinking at work a thing of the past?
Around 9 per cent of workers admit to drinking alcohol at work, with tradespeople (17.9 per cent), managers (19.6 per cent) and professionals (19.3 per cent) the occupational groups with the largest proportion of short-term risky drinkers.
Phillip Collins, head of workplace services at the Australian Drug Foundation, says more research needs to be done on the topic to find out whether the drinking culture at work is changing. At the moment the foundation is looking at the cost to business of drinking on the job.
Aside from the fact we don’t know a lot about how much drinking goes on at work, he says there’s usually not much training done in the workplace to educate employees about their responsibilities when it comes to drinking at work.
“There might be a code of practice that has one or two lines about not drinking or taking drugs at work,” explains Collins, who says in some organisations and industries the culture of drinking at work has changed, whereas others appear stuck back in the 80s or 90s.
He says if an employee is exhibiting signs of problem drinking, most workplaces these days understand there are steps they need to follow to ensure the person receives the appropriate help, rather than just flat-out dismissing them. This usually involves a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy and ensuring the person has the opportunity to receive appropriate help.
But the big issue is that on an individual basis most businesses can’t measure the effect on profits and productivity of drinking at work, either as a result of people chucking a sickie after a big night, or from drinking during working hours, or from having staff turn up to work hung over.
But plenty of researchers have looked at it on a community-wide basis and their results make for, ahem, pretty sobering reading.
Research published this year has found alcohol and drugs cost Australian workplaces an estimated $6 billion per year in lost productivity. Earlier research published in 2006 found the annual cost of alcohol-related absenteeism alone is estimated to be up to $1.2 billion.
In addition, another study found alcohol use contributes to five per cent of all Australian workplace deaths and 25 per cent of workplace accidents.
From my perspective, these figures clearly show our workplaces have a drinking problem.
According to Collins, smaller businesses are often the ones most at risk of experiencing the adverse affects of staff drinking at work because they don’t have policies in place to deal with it. It’s hard to imagine a family-owned retail shop, for instance, putting together a formal induction program that deals with the risks of drinking at work.
However, the ADF does have an online program called ADF Aware that businesses can use to get staff thinking about their alcohol consumption and drinking at work. It costs as little as $1.50 per person. If you’re a small business which is keen to educate staff about drinking at work – and I’m especially thinking of all the small hospitality businesses out there – it might be worth a look.
Incidentally, I asked Phillip Collins about the ADF’s own policy of drinking at work – there was no alcohol at the Christmas party – and his own use of alcohol. Coming from a marketing background, he’s worked in jobs where drinking was the norm. He’s by no means a wowser – he says he drinks socially but not at work – and believes prohibition of alcohol is “an insane way to go”.
But his advice to business owners who want to do the right thing when it comes to drinking at work is to lead by example.
“Be self reflective and think about how you view alcohol and drugs. Look at how you manage your own use of alcohol and how it’s seen and viewed by employees,” he says.
A sober approach, I would say.