Alcohol in the Workplace: Cool Trend or Risky Policy?

Is making alcohol available at the workplace justified by arguments such as long work hours, the blending of work and home life, or the expectation that employees will act responsibly? I would argue that it is not.
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Happy Hour During Work Hours

"They say a man's work is never done. They say you can't mix business with pleasure. They say that good things come to those who wait." -- Anheuser Busch Super Bowl 2012 commercial

The above were the opening lines in a Super Bowl ad that promoted a new product -- Bud Light Platinum -- that is being offered by Anheuser Busch. In the ad, a group of men and women (all 30-something) are seen in what is clearly an office environment. The opening scene, in fact, shows a man seated at a desk, head in hand and clearly fatigued. The message is unmistakable: You can mix business with pleasure, and why wait until after work to have that first drink?

Interestingly enough, Anheuser Busch may be merely capitalizing on what is already an emerging workplace trend that is worth looking at. Bloomberg noted three examples in a recent story:

Yelp Inc's headquarters in San Francisco features a keg refrigerator that employees are free to use as much as they want. Yelp operates, a social networking, user review, and local search web site that filed a $100 million IPO in November 2011. Eric Singley, director of Yelp consumer and mobile products, points to the fact that employees' use of the keg is monitored via an iPad app as a way of discouraging excessive use.

Lukas Biewald, CEO of CrowdFlower Inc, an employment company, justifies having a fridge full of beer by pointing out that the long hours put in by employees who work at companies like his means that social life and work life often overlap.

Twitter Inc. also stocks wine and beer in its office fridge (along with nonalcoholic drinks). Jodi Olson, a company spokeswoman, told Bloomberg, "We treat employees as adults, and they act accordingly."

EDPM, Inc is a company that specializes in providing drug testing and background check services. Its stated goal is "to assist clients in developing and maintaining their most valuable resources -- their employees." In commenting on the above trend on their corporate blog, EDPM pointed out that by following the Anheuser Busch suggestion and condoning drinking in the workplace (whether it is monitored or not), employers may be taking in some liability. "If an employee leaves work with alcohol in his/her system and gets into an accident, does the employer bear any responsibility?" they ask.

A Cool Trend?

Consistent with the above, Drs. Paul Roman and Terry Blum, writing for the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, report that the development of alcohol abuse prevention programs in U.S. workplaces has slowed considerably in recent years, despite the fact that such programs can be effective. They also cite statistics showing that about 8 percent of full-time employees self-report drinking five or more drinks on five or more occasions per month. It would not seem reasonable to assume that such drinking behavior would have no impact on employees' productivity.

A lack of policy, combined with the absence of serious alcohol prevention programs and/or a corporate policy of tolerance may in fact be a slippery slope rather than a perk for many employees. In one survey of 6,540 employees at 16 workplaces representing a range if industries, fully 23 percent of upper-level managers reported drinking during work hours in the prior month.[1]

All of the above raises the question: Is making alcohol available at the workplace justified by arguments such as long work hours, the blending of work and home life, or the expectation that employees will act responsibly? I would argue that it is not. Let me know if you disagree.

"Almost Alcoholic" and Corporate Policy

Until recently, medical and mental health professionals considered only two categories of drinking to be problematic. The first, "alcohol dependence," is what is commonly called alcoholism. The alcoholic must drink more or less continuously to maintain a level of alcohol in his or her body. If all the alcohol is metabolized, the alcoholic goes into withdrawal and experiences severe, even life-threatening, physical symptoms.

The second diagnostic category -- "alcohol abuse" -- is used when an individual is not yet physically dependent on alcohol but has nevertheless experienced one or more severe consequences directly attributable to drinking. Examples of such consequences would be an arrest for driving under the influence or domestic violence, a severe illness such as diabetes, or the loss of a job due to poor performance.

Men and women (and only those men and women) who meet the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence have been considered (by professionals and insurers) to be eligible for treatment. However, this may be changing.

As it has been working toward the first revision of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in more than 15 years, the American Psychiatric Association has been taking new look at many diagnostic categories. Under consideration is the idea that some conditions might be better thought of as existing on a spectrum rather than in terms of discrete categories such as alcohol abuse and dependence. Dr. Robert Doyle and I are supportive of this approach, particularly as it pertains to drinking. To be specific, we have proposed that drinking be viewed in terms of the spectrum depicted below.


We believe that, as opposed to thinking that only those men and women whose drinking has progressed toward the far right of the drinking spectrum may need help, that in fact many people in the mid-range may also be suffering as a result of drinking. That suffering may include declining job performance and declining health that the individual does not yet recognize as being related to drinking.

Here are a few signs that an individual may have moved out of the normal social drinking part of the spectrum and into the almost alcoholic zone. Keep in mind that it is not only if a person drinks for these reasons, but also how often they do so that can determine how far into the almost alcoholic zone they have ventured.

  • You drink to relieve stress.
  • You drink alone.
  • You look forward to drinking
  • Your drinking may be related to one or more health problems
  • You drink to relieve boredom or loneliness.
  • You sometimes drive after drinking.
  • You drink to maintain a "buzz."
  • Your performance at work is not what it used to be.
  • You aren't comfortable in social situations without drinking.
  • You find that drinking helps you overcome your shyness.

The almost alcoholic zone is actually quite large. The people who occupy it are not alcoholics. Rather they are men and women whose drinking habits range from barely qualifying as almost alcoholics to those whose drinking borders on abuse. One thing we do know about them is that the more their drinking correlates with the above statements, the more likely they are to drift further into the almost alcoholic zone. I would ask you: Could offering alcoholic beverages at work promote movement into the almost alcoholic zone?

Research on treatment for drinking problems has advanced considerably in the past 15 years, thanks in part to funding for controlled clinical trials. That research has resulted in a number of strategies that individuals can use to either stop or reduce their drinking -- in other words, to "shift left" on the drinking spectrum. These methods are detailed in Almost Alcoholic: Is My (or My Loved One's) Drinking a Problem? Of significance is that they have proven effective not only for men and women who are alcohol dependent, but also for those who may be "almost alcoholic."

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[1] Mangione, T.W., Howland, J., and Lee, M. "New Perspectives for Worksite Alcohol Strategies: Results from a Corporate Drinking Study." Boston, MS: JSI Research and Training Institute, 1998.

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