With the Football World Cup in full swing, and up to half a million Brits already going into work with a hangover on any given day, what does this mean for the workplace?
The pounding headache, the overwhelming nausea, the light-sensitivity and the bleary-eyed commute. The Great British Hangover seems to be a staple of British culture, a rite of passage in which we all prove ourselves at one time or another. This is part of a long tradition of workplace boozing – from the halcyon days of liquid-lunches in London’s taverns, to Manhattan’s endless whisky tinted-meetings in the 1960s (as shown in hit show Mad Men) – it’s clear that alcohol has a longstanding relationship with workplaces.
With the Football World Cup in full swing, the World Economic Forum has even run studies on which cities are most likely to have productivity losses due to the sporting tournament, from absenteeism and – you guessed it – hangovers and lunchtime drinking. But, are our drinking days numbered? Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics show the proportion of adults who say they drink alcohol is the lowest on record. The rise of vegetarianism, veganism, fitness and teetotalism are all firmly at odds with our penchant for pints. So is our love-affair with boozing on the wane – is the bottle about to run dry?
A key harbinger of this changing attitude to drinking and work came in 2017, when Lloyds of London implemented a total ban on lunchtime drinking. This was partly welcomed, but mainly met with outrage by the staff. Many claimed that business would suffer – business meetings, friendships and discussions depended on this lunchtime tradition. Was this a progressive move for public health, or a worrying sign of a burgeoning puritanical paternalism?
What’s the problem?
NHS stats found that “those in managerial or professional jobs are more likely to drink five days a week or more and drink more heavily in a single session than those in intermediate or manual jobs”. This is partly down to an ingrained culture of boozing in the city, but might come as a surprise to some. However, with desk-based work, it’s easier to look like you’re functioning, than it is if your job is operating heavy machinery. And let’s face it: heart surgeons really can’t go to work hungover.
But some public figures, including Boris Johnson, have said that they are partial to a bit of lunchtime boozing. He says that Churchill swigged whisky for breakfast, did a full day of parliamentary duties, gorged on a vast dinner washed down with cognac and claret, and then wrote a full chapter of his latest literary endeavour, so (he says) it naturally followsthat ‘getting on the juice’ gets the creative juices flowing.
Obviously this is not always the case. From a business point of view (without even going into the health statistics) the bottom line is that hangovers and lunchtime drinking tend – generally – to result in a loss of productivity. If you have a liquid lunch, you won’t be able to make the same decisions at 4pm as you could at 10am, and a lack of judgement is not good for business when you need to make well-informed, rational choices. Equally, staff report having problems keeping on top of their workload when they’ve had one too many the night before: one in five admit to making mistakes, and 7% say they’ve had to go home early due to the resulting ‘illness’.
In a 2018 parliament research briefing, a key line of argument in raising the minimum alcohol price per unit was that alcohol consumption, through both absenteeism and presenteeism (either not turning up, or turning up but not really working – well or at all) causes losses in productivity to the tune of about £7.3bn per year in the UK. And it’s hard to argue with that.
Are Our Workplaces Making Us Drink?
48 per cent of employers believe their staff would never come in late because of binge drinking – an unlikely scenario, given that in the UK alone there are 200,000 hungover workers on any given day. That, in fact, is one of the more conservative estimates, with some studies arguing that there are around half a million hangovers in the workforce daily.
Rather than demonising workers for drinking, perhaps employers need to look at their management styles and policies. In 2016, a government-commissioned independent review into the impacts of drugs and alcohol on employment found that the workplace itself can be a factor in encouraging increased levels of alcohol consumption. Key drivers were: long working hours, monotonous work, tight deadlines and job insecurity. In short, stressful working conditions induce people to drink more. Similarly, dull working conditions and boring work tasks make people want to drink, and these are all problems for managers.
Binge Drinking is For Teenagers, Right?
Not so. The same NHS study found that men and women aged 45 to 64 are more likely to binge drink than anyother age group across the whole population. However, it seems that this age group limit their drinking to weekends, as almost 1 in 5 workers aged 18 to 25 admit to coming in with a hangover at least once a month – more than any other age group.
However, Dr Tony Rao, co-chairman of the older people’s substance misuse working group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists says: “It’s very concerning that while the rest of the population, including younger people, reduces its alcohol intake, baby boomers are drinking at a similar rate as before – and exceeding recommended guidelines”. But, if Baby Boomers are saving this for the weekend, then is it really a business problem?
What’s next for the Great British Hangover?
One of the biggest problems in working out where we stand on this issue, is that there seems to be a huge double standard. 89% of people think it’s unacceptable to go into work hungover, and yet two thirds of workers report having a laugh about it with their boss or colleagues. So will Brits continue to blearily stumble down the path towards binge drinking – regardless of the damaging effect on our productivity at our work, our long term health and our bank balances?
Well, it seems that we’re not ready to let go just yet. And, realistically, there will always be a place in our hearts for a well-timed pint. Whilst we love our booze, we know – because we’ve reported it ourselves in surveys – that we’re worse at our jobs, and less productive when we’re hungover. It also goes without saying that companies cannot babysit their staff, so much of the answer lies in personal choice. Despite the beginnings of a huge cultural shift favouring wellness over wine, with the World Cup and scorching summer weather sending everyone into a thirsty frenzy, this summer looks to be a boozy one. If so, it might be best to accept our bleary-eyed colleagues and just ensure there’s enough coffee in the office to get through the morning after the match day.
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