Paul Avis takes a seasonal meander around the festive period by looking at alcohol consumption, and questions whether it’s a good time of year for employee health management, morale and motivation.
I do like a beer. Well, a few actually. Sometimes more. Although, increasingly, it’s wine these days. Should I be admitting this to HR professionals? Well it is almost Christmas and we all like to party at this time. But do we always have to feel guilty when thinking about having a festive drink, both before and after the event?
I thought that the British were a nation of good-time, fun-loving people; the life and soul of the party. Plus we drink less than many other European countries. In actual fact, depending on which survey you read, we have either the third or ninth highest alcohol consumption (number one is Luxembourg, who drink approximately 100 pints more than we do every year).
So what is the problem? Maybe if we did not speed drink and feel that we had to binge and cram, we may behave ourselves. And anyway, it is Christmas soon and we all like a drink at Christmas, don’t we?
The alcohol effect
Alcohol has a depressant effect on our brains, making us less inhibited, confident, talkative and argumentative. Men should drink no more than 21 units per week, and for women it is 14 units. A unit is 10ml or 8g of absolute alcohol.
Alcohol dependence is characterised by a desire or compulsion to drink, difficulty in controlling levels of consumption, a physiological withdrawal if consumption is ceased, increased tolerance, neglect of other interests and persistent use even though the health consequences have been made clear.
Some alcoholics would argue that it is a disease or due to genetic factors, but it is possibly best described as multifactorial in origin with some hiding their habit due to social stigma and some acknowledging that they have a social habit of alcohol consumption.
Treatment for alcohol dependence starts with self-acknowledgement of the problem and then a period of abstinence or detoxification, but without the continued support of bodies such as Alcoholics Anonymous there is a large chance of a relapse.
In terms of prevention and alcohol awareness, employers do have access to a mountain of support, and suggestions include alcohol or substance abuse policies, zero tolerance of alcohol in the workplace during working hours, and clearly mandated occasions when it is acceptable to drink.
The Christmas party
In the eyes of the law, the Christmas party is seen as an extension of the workplace, which means that behaviour considered inappropriate in the office is also inappropriate in social situations.
Parties can leave bad feelings between employees and managers if jokes are taken too far, or if too much alcohol is consumed, which can lead to unprofessional behaviour.
Employment tribunals will treat any harassment that occurs at the office party as if it had occurred at work. Cancelling the Christmas party could be an option but this could significantly lower morale.
However, organised properly, the office party can boost morale and show colleagues in a different light, rarely seen in the busy workplace environment. If the employer is holding a party, then sensible preparation is required and, ideally, a policy communicated on employment-linked events to remind staff that the party is work-related. Some recommendations include:
- Pay for the food and limited alcohol. Provide taxis, or taxi telephone numbers and a clear indication that getting to and from the party is the employee’s responsibility, not the employer’s, and that only acceptable behaviour will be tolerated.
- Some information on the potential effect of alcohol the morning after should also be highlighted, as employees may be over the legal limit when driving to or from work. Non-attendance at work could even require the removal of the seven-day GP self-certification route (if not held on a Friday or Saturday night) but the employer will have to pay for the sick note in most cases.
- If held in the workplace, a health and safety risk assessment should be carried out to ensure that the location is adequate. If there are too many people in a small area, trip hazards should be assessed and, if off-site, then a quick visit to the room at the venue should be undertaken to ensure that there are no obvious issues and that access is acceptable for disabled employees.
- If there is entertainment or a theme to the event, care should be taken that it does not upset any employees. Wearing a Nazi uniform is possibly not the best plan as one royal found out. Comics especially will have to be carefully chosen, as some diverse views about humour still exist out there.
Christmas has always been commercial but is it still fun? Are we allowing it to be fun? Yes, alcohol abuse is serious over a long period of time; some employees cannot control themselves when they have a few; and some will view the office party as a major opportunity to either let their hair down or score points.
But for the majority of employees, it would be cruel not to repay their endeavours during the festive season, and the best way to do that is to have a really good party where the environment is safe and inclusive and they control their travel arrangements and alcohol consumption. They are, after all, adults.
Paul Avis is corporate development manager at the LifeWorks division of Ceridian UK.