Every employer I’ve had since college has encouraged me to drink, usually being so helpful as to provide the alcohol itself. My first media job kept a few bottles of vodka, whiskey, and tequila on a bookshelf and sponsored an annual booze-soaked weekend at a resort with the Texas side of the operation. My next company installed an actual bar—complete with a huge vintage mirror and stocked mostly with Jägermeister—inside the office.
Clearly, these workplaces had strong drinking cultures, and I was an enthusiastic, tipsy participant. After a few glasses of inexpensive prosecco, I felt more like I belonged among my talented, cool co-workers than I did when I was sober, desperately trying to appear competent and funny and chill among people who I now realize probably felt the same way I did. Of course, alcohol didn’t actually make me cooler, but it did make my anxiety skyrocket the following day—and that’s just the beginning of the messes that come from shaking up drinks and work.
Even as someone who’s indulged in drinking with colleagues in the past, I now think this could all be avoided by doing away with mixing work and liquor—putting a stop not just to the benders at resorts and endless supplies of Jägermeister, but also to the 5 p.m. drinking with colleagues and bosses that is a familiar part of workplace culture. As many of us return to offices, or contemplate returning, we’re reassessing workplace norms and our needs as both employees and people. And an important part of that overhaul should be to leave booze-fueled socializing in the past—no more enticing bar carts parked near the cubicles and tipsy retreats on company time, but also no more colleague happy hours centered on beer and wine. It’s a new world, post-pandemic, and in it, the office should be dry.
If that makes you grumble, consider that anxiety and other hangover symptoms aren’t the worst side effects of evenings spent getting drunk with colleagues. When drinking is a company-organized activity, it can exclude a lot of people, like those who don’t drink for health or religious reasons, recovering alcoholics, and people who need to get home to care for kids or other dependents, said Alison Green, a work advice columnist for Slate and the founder of the workplace blog Ask a Manager. She told me she often receives questions from people who feel compelled to drink at work and don’t want to. One letter writer even worried about being too uptight after a higher-up cracked a beer during a job interview.
A 2019 study found that when employers or supervisors initiate drinking events, employees feel obligated to participate. Given that 40 percent of Americans who consume alcohol drink too much of it, linking drinking to work is most obviously not ideal for people with alcoholism and those who are at risk for it.
“It is almost universally true that easier access to alcohol increases drinking as well as hazardous drinking,” said Kenneth Leonard, a clinical psychologist and the director of the University at Buffalo’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions.* “Alcohol availability in the workplace certainly has this effect.”
Worrying about whether or not you’re drinking too much—or whether your nondrinking is being noticed or judged—puts additional pressure on workers who already have enough on their plate.
Those who are in recovery from substance abuse—or even just trying to cut back—could have an especially difficult time. “Real talk, in moments where I’ve felt my relationship to drinking is unhealthy, that’s been hard to navigate because the social culture of the company doesn’t leave much room for that,” said “Heather,” an editor at Vice Media in New York, who requested a pseudonym to protect her ability to speak freely about her job.
Workplaces that encourage drinking marginalize the many Americans—as many as 30 percent—who don’t drink at all for whatever reason. Some have substance abuse disorders; others abstain for religious or health reasons or because they simply don’t like the taste or effects of alcohol. These employees can struggle in their own ways with office happy hours that put them in the awkward position of having to explain why they aren’t indulging.
Ally, a publicist in Chicago who requested that only her first name be used so as not to “throw anyone under the bus,” said that as someone who no longer drinks, she’s nervous about the boozy events that will accompany her return to the office. “As a nondrinker, I feel that pressure to fit in and not look awkward,” she says. “Will I be singled out? [Made] to feel embarrassed? Questioned about my decision or asked point-blank if I’m an alcoholic?” These concerns add unnecessary anxiety to her job, she says.
Arielle Castillo, a content producer for a soccer club based in Manchester, England, told me the constant drinking and party atmosphere at a former workplace became so relentless and exhausting that she found another job. “It can be really hard to draw boundaries in that environment,” she said, especially when networking and seeming like “one of the guys” centers on alcohol-fueled events. Were she to go to sleep “early” and not drink all night with her co-workers, “the next day would be everyone else laughing about some random drunken caper you weren’t part of.” She found it hard to say no to such situations, even when she knew she’d feel better and more awake the following morning.
Perhaps most seriously, alcohol’s ability to lower inhibitions can set the stage for everything from inappropriate comments and microaggressions to sexual misconduct, and that’s no different when the company is paying the tab.
Research shows what no one should be shocked to learn: that there is a significant correlation between the number of heavy-drinking male employees and a culture of sexual harassment against women in a workplace. Heavy alcohol consumption at work is also linked to increased physical and verbal aggression at work. “I think there are a lot of reasons that anyone, especially a woman, might want to avoid [workplace drinking events],” says Joanna Kent, a U.K.-based data analyst who worked for years in wine and spirits sales, where drinking during and after work was common. “It often meant weighing up the negatives—not wanting to be drunk around your colleagues, not wanting to be around drunk colleagues, not wanting to have to make your way home later at night, not wanting to spend the money—with the social aspect, and the ‘networking’ aspect.”
When drinking is deeply embedded in a company’s culture, it can become a crutch and a substitute for the very kind of connection that managers hope to foster when they organize happy hours. Carmen Bush, an employee at a tech company in the Bay Area, said her company’s weekly “TGIF” party starts at 4 p.m. on Thursdays. “My co-workers would grab six [bottles] and stake out a table and we would all just hunker down and start pounding it,” she says. When the work event ended at 7 p.m., everyone would migrate to the bar across the street, where they’d get “sloshed.” These drinking events, which have continued via Zoom during the pandemic, seem to serve as a way for employees to connect with one another. “When you’re not allowed to share the details of your projects with each other, necessarily, or you don’t know how to relate to people about anything other than money, or beyond your nerdy little hobbies, alcohol becomes this safe hobby,” Carmen said. Pre-pandemic in-person drinking came with the risk of awkward hookups or make-out sessions with co-workers, while Zoom happy hours left everyone “wasted in your house alone.” She’s since stopped drinking, and she says she feels so much happier and more confident that other people are taking notice.
There are, in fact, plenty of other ways for teams to bond. Green of Ask a Manager suggested potlucks, catered lunches, or coffee tastings, “ideally during work hours so that people with caretaking responsibilities after work aren’t excluded.”
Many employers may remain committed to encouraging alcohol consumption during and after work because they want employees to believe that the people you work with are your friend group, your family, your everything. And it’s obviously not bad to develop bonds with people you spend eight hours a day with. But most of your co-workers are just that: co-workers.
We give our employers enough as it is: the 40 hours a week they pay us for, and often more. We shouldn’t have to choose between career progression and our health, nor should we have to wonder whether it’s hurting our careers to pass on workplace events that involve alcohol. As people flow back into offices and other in-person workplaces, let’s leave the booze-fueled happy hours in the past. Why would you drink with co-workers when you could hang out with your friends or family, anyway?
Correction, Aug. 5, 2021: This article originally misidentified Kenneth Leonard as a psychiatrist. He is a clinical psychologist.