Managing alcohol consumption at work functions


Managing alcohol consumption at work functions

Avoiding top-ups and offering mocktails are among the strategies to consider when serving Australia’s most popular drug of choice at workplace festivities at any time of the year.


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Avoiding top-ups and offering mocktails are among the strategies to consider when serving Australia’s most popular drug of choice at workplace festivities.

Alcohol is the most widespread psychoactive substance available in this country. “It is legal, socially sanctioned and widely promoted,” says the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA) at Flinders University in its report ‘The Social Context of Alcohol Use in Australia’.

Whether it’s a day at the footy or cricket, a birthday or a wedding, consuming alcohol at social events is an inherent part of Australian culture. Given its strong link to our national identity, alcohol has long been an acceptable part of the Australian workplace culture.

'The done thing' costs employers $5.6b a year

There’s an expectation that it forms part of almost all employee celebrations, with many considering drinking to be ‘the done thing’ to fit in and bond with their peers, says the NCETA.

However, any workplace function where alcohol is served poses very real safety and harassment risks, with a recent poll by the Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) revealing that one in five Victorian workers had experienced unwanted or inappropriate behaviour at an organised work function where alcohol was served, and three in 100 workers had suffered an injury due to the amount of alcohol they had consumed at a work function.

In addition, the NCETA report estimates the bill to employers for workforce labour costs (lost productivity through hangovers and sickies, staff turnover and early retirement) and other factors due to alcohol use is about $5.6 billion a year.

According to Phillip Collins, head of workplace services at ADF, these figures should raise a red flag for businesses, especially big businesses, which need to seriously consider implementing and adhering to a Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) policy at workplace functions.

“For organisations with a couple of hundred staff, these statistics warn us that if an RSA policy is not adhered to, you could have a dozen injuries and potential liability claims,” Collins says.

Safety and reputation

“It’s not just about protecting the safety of your employees but also ensuring that the reputation of your business remains intact.”

Better still, he says, work functions are a good opportunity, if an alcohol service policy is strongly in place, for a company to promote an image of being a responsible employer and providing a safe, healthy workplace.

Collins suggests that at events serving free drinks employees can have a preconceived idea that it’s a “free-for-all” and may proceed to consume the equivalent of their wages in a night.

He says managers need to clearly outline their expectations of their employees prior to the event and promote it as a celebration with no focus on alcohol. 

They also need to take the time to plan how the event will unfold on the night. “It’s not just a matter of restricting the service of full-strength beer. It also comes down to what the entertainment schedule is during the night,” Collins says.

For example, there may be times during the night when alcohol could be restricted, such as during entertainment or formal speeches, and the serving of non-alcoholic beverages could be increased to tables.

Collins also suggests serving guests a non-alcoholic beverage on arrival, which will quench their thirst prior to consuming alcohol; if alcoholic beverages are served on arrival, try to then match the ratio of non-alcoholic beverages to alcoholic drinks so guests have a choice.

“By [you] taking control of the event from behind the scenes, people don’t see it as being any different from any other celebration,” Collins says. “If you implement some simple changes in the background without people knowing, they will simply go along and enjoy the event for what it is without being fully aware of any change.”

Being a good host

To help businesses steer clear of alcohol-related harm and corporate embarrassment, without dampening the fun, the ADF developed the Good Hosts program. The program helps HR managers and event planners to coordinate their work functions so employees can still have a good time with or without alcohol. It sends the message to those who want to drink alcohol that they must do so responsibly, and to those who don’t want to drink that they have the right to choose without any pressure.

Dr Ken Pidd, deputy director of NCETA, who helped develop the program, said organisations should try to strike a balance between creating an alcohol-free event and managing alcohol consumption at workplace functions.

In addition, he says, “Over the past five years or so there has been growing recognition that people’s drinking, not only during work hours but also away from the workplace, can potentially impact on work productivity, safety and worker wellbeing.

“As such, there is now wider recognition that alcohol needs to be considered as part of workplace ‘worker wellbeing’ initiatives.

“In Australia, especially, alcohol has been used as a reward within the workplace and even now it is often used as a morale- or team-building exercise, but there is growing recognition that it needs to be effectively managed.”

Pidd says many larger organisations are implementing guidelines for the use of alcohol at functions, including common sense strategies such as putting the food on early, making sure the drinks get turned off an hour before the function ends, ensuring people have a safe journey home, and having a process in place for anyone who’s intoxicated.

“Having these guidelines in place does reduce the risk of incidences,” he adds, “but people need to be aware of the company policy and guidelines on workplace functions so everyone is on the same page if any incidents do occur.”

Changing the culture

Peter Doyle of Guidelight Psychology goes one step further, saying national occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation is creating a groundswell of change to the drinking culture.

“OHS legislation is holding employers accountable for not creating healthier workplaces, for not addressing the mental health of staff and for allowing drinking and binging to become the default option,” Doyle says. “It’s creating legal liability issues that give us a reason to act to make the healthy workplace the norm.”

Doyle suggests that if employers want to change the drinking culture in Australian workplaces, they must tackle the myths that go with it, including the belief that drinking alcohol is a good way to bond and to manage stress.

“We need to modify and deal with stresses in the workplace, and team-building and bonding … in more integrated and healthier ways,” he advises.

“One way to change the culture is to look at what is really causing stress in the workplace and then run proper intervention programs and teach staff the importance of work/life balance,” Doyle says.

“Give them the tools and rituals for new, positive, health-based behaviours that, over time, will become the new culture of the workplace. If people just keep doing what they’ve always done, it’s no surprise they’ll just keep getting the same old results.”

Doyle says the drinking culture can change, but only if employers make two fundamental changes in their thinking: acknowledge that the drinking culture is creating stress and dysfunction; and realising that the dollar return on health and wellness programs and improves the performance of the bottom line.

“If you show employees a new strategy and ritualise it, then it becomes an integrated health and wellbeing ‘way of living’. The psychological reason why this works is because when you run wellness programs with a physical, intellectual, emotional and inspirational component you get self-concept change in individuals,” Doyle says. And this self-concept change will lead to the binge drinking culture in Australia finally being defeated, he adds.
This article, by Kelly Oversby, was first published in the March-April 2015 edition of National Safety – a magazine of the National Safety Council of Australia.
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