Taps off: why UK workplaces are turning away from alcohol

Business owners have been advised to limit the amount of alcohol served at work parties. But is workplace drinking culture already losing favour with employees?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Prosecco business breakfasts, a white wine at a client lunch, and an ice cold pint to finish the day. No matter how you view it, the UK business landscape is flooded with alcohol.

In the pressure of a professional setting, drinking is often seen as a conversational crutch for staff members. According to a 2022 report by Drinkaware, 23% of companies currently provide alcohol at socials.

But, like a lot of workplace conventions, our reliance on alcohol has been flipped upside down post-COVID. Many remote workers who paused their drinking habits have returned to the workplace sober-curious. Young colleagues are also onboard.

The trend is catching on amongst industry leaders, as bosses become more educated on the potentially exclusive nature of alcohol. Cases of drunken misconduct, such as the high-profile firing of CBI director general Tony Danker in April, have also soured tastes.

Below, we ask how businesses are reacting to the workplace drinking culture war, to evaluate whether alcohol still has a place at the desk in 2023.

“We’ve moved away from events like wine tasting”

The UK is famed for its booze-centred drinking culture. But not everyone is enthusiastic about participating.

While some employees see a draft beer as a welcome respite after a long day’s work, for others, it’s an unwelcome guest that excuses bad behaviour or poor discipline amongst colleagues.

This marmite characteristic means those who would rather stay sober are often put in the difficult position of having to forgo their beliefs, or miss out on key networking or team-building opportunities.

Based on one Drinkaware survey, 43% of UK adults say there’s too much pressure to drink when socialising with work colleagues.

In May, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) advised businesses to limit alcohol served at work events, after a poll found that 29% of UK managers have seen harassment or inappropriate behaviours at work parties, due to excessive drinking.

At the time, CMI CEO Ann Francke, commented that liquid courage should no longer be viewed as necessary at company work events. Her sentiments have since been echoed by small business owners, who are now pouring water on the idea of workplace wine.

Molly Dyer is Head of People and Culture at Foundation, a specialist beauty marketing agency. Dyer is one of many HR managers who has recently begun advocating for less booze-themed team bonding.

“We’ve consciously tried to move away from events where alcohol is a key feature, like wine tasting and cocktail masterclasses,” reveals Dyer. “While they can be fun for some, they aren’t inclusive for others.”

Why workplace sobriety is the new Gen Z trend

Perhaps the main instigator behind the shift away from alcohol in the office is Gen Z. Having come of working age post-pandemic, this group has entered the workplace during a time of great change.

They have already brought many behavioural switches, like a more casual dress code and a demand for greater work-life balance, with them. Now, the younger generation is sending back their wine orders.

One survey by London Heritage Quarter found that almost a quarter of employees aged under 24 prefer cold sober socialising. In the same report, 24% said they choose to have fewer drinks after work.

Daeni Odukoya is an SEO specialist at a global tech firm in London. At just 23 years old, Odukoya is one of the many Gen Zers who are seeking out sober hobbies over alcohol-centred events.

“I’m not a big fan of alcohol and I don’t really go to the pub or bars as much,” Odukoya shrugs. “To be honest, I don’t see the point in just drinking for fun. It’s too expensive to drink just because!”

Daeni Odukyo

Daeni Odukoya says she doesn’t drink as much as her older colleagues.

Money seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to sober-curious young people. With record-high inflation rates hitting the UK’s pubs and bars particularly hard, the average cost of a pint in the UK has now risen by more than 70% since 2008 to £3.95.

The rising cost of living has especially impacted young people, who tend to be early on in their careers and earning less. The London Heritage Quarter research also found that the main reason young people are avoiding alcohol is to reduce costs.

36% of young people surveyed said they were cutting down on going out in order to save money, compared to 24% of respondents aged 25 and over.

Elinor Gray is a political researcher based in London. Also a Gen Zer, Gray says financial constraints meant she has struggled to afford drinks with coworkers.

“My last job had a strong drinking and social culture, and I did struggle due to the volume of social events on a graduate salary,” she admits. “I often have to limit the number of times I drink due to money.”

Can you wean a team off the bottle?

Not everyone is on-board the abstinence train. Those who are used to having alcohol as a staple at the Christmas party may find it harder to let go of than newbie coworkers.

Andy Whiteaker is Partner in the Employment team at Boyes Turner, a Reading-based law firm. As Whiteaker warns, clashes of opinion when it comes to alcohol means young workers still face pressure to drink when encouraged by experienced members of staff.

“Minorities – whether that’s due to race, religion or gender- may also be reluctant to challenge the behaviour of the majority,” he adds.

A compassionate leadership style can help to normalise the move away from alcohol. Managers and supervisors, who can be influential in modelling how the rest of the company behaves, should lead by example.

Jon Martin is Operations Director at Hallam, a digital marketing agency. Martin, who is sober, describes his choice to stop drinking as a change for both him and the wider company.

“I was usually the guy buying the first round on a Friday after work. As I’m one of the senior people at the company, that set the culture for others to follow,” he recalls.

Perhaps due to Martin’s legacy, other members of the Hallam team have also embraced sobriety. He tells Startups that he thinks attitudes towards alcohol are changing a lot.

“It’s good to see them question the norm,” he says. “Workplaces need to ensure they reflect the growing needs and interests of their workforce, and sobriety is another facet of this.”

Indeed, employers could already be behind on the trend. Over the past few years, UK workers have begun favouring meaningful work with employers who share and respect their beliefs. Half of young people would hesitate to work for a firm lacking diverse leaders.

It is no coincidence then, that understanding of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) seems to be growing alongside the call to dry out. For example, colleagues who might feel excluded from a boozy work function if they are pregnant or don’t drink for religious reasons.

Gill McAteer, Director of Employment Law at Citation, advises companies to review their workplace culture to ensure that it supports inclusivity and employee wellbeing.

“DEI is essential for any business, in order to create an environment where people feel their voices and opinions are encouraged and heard,” says McAteer. “This makes sense for businesses from a holistic point of view, but also commercially.

“Employees who work for such forward thinking and inclusive organisations are less likely to leave.”

Is now a good time?

HR experts may agree that work parties do not have to include alcohol. However, business owners may not want to risk alienating pro-alcohol staff members by vetoing their complimentary glass of prosecco.

Work parties and social gatherings are a well-known business tactic for encouraging team positivity and improving employee engagement, reducing the risk of isolation amongst team members.

Out-of-work bonding is also important for teamwork, and fostering good sentiment between members. And working with colleagues who you actually enjoy spending time with is an effective way to foster a tight-knit organisational culture that keeps staff motivated.

Especially as the cost of living crisis makes such premiums unaffordable for many (sending engagement rates plummeting in the UK) some business owners may therefore be leaning heavily on the beer tap to keep morale high.

While putting money towards work drinks might seem like a nice gesture for employers, it can end up making alcohol-free events seem less celebratory.

Wendy Dean is CEO of Strategi Solutions, a business management consultancy firm. Dean stresses that an outright ban on booze is not necessary. Companies can be more inclusive by simply centering socials around an activity other than drinking.

“It’s every employer’s responsibility to offer options that everyone can participate in,” she says.

How to keep everyone happy

Subsidising events that aren’t focused around drinking is a way to normalise sobriety in the workplace. Amongst the alternate activities that the Foundation team has sampled are a board game night, a FIFA night, and even after-work walks.

“It’s important to remember that not everyone drinks, and to ensure that there’s enough activities going on for people who aren’t very excited by the thought of the pub,” says Dyer.

Bosses can back this up by purchasing a range of alcohol-free drinks choices for the office. Forget just the boring Diet Coke, there are tons of zero-alcohol beers and wines and innovative brands for workers to sample and enjoy.

Last year, we featured Drop Bear Beer Co – a no-alcohol brewer based in Wales – in the Startups 100 Index due to their superfast growth. Since launching in 2017, the firm has had nearly 900 investors and won over 20 awards internationally.

Another tip is to ensure your business has designed an alcohol policy. The rules around drinking in the office should be clearly communicated in the employee handbook to reduce the legal risks of making alcohol readily available at work. For example, if someone is injured on the job while drinking, or sexual harassment occurs.

Companies might choose to adopt a ’zero-tolerance’ approach, or lay out a list of other rules and guidelines. Alcohol consumption might be ruled out during office hours. Managers might also put a set limit on the number of drinks that can be purchased during client meetings or lunches, or specify that food be served alongside the hard stuff.

Where possible, an empathetic approach to dealing with misdemeanours is also encouraged.

Drug and alcohol misuse can be a health concern as much as a disciplinary matter. If an employer dismisses an offender without trying to help them, a tribunal may find they have done so unfairly.

Brendan Wincott is Managing Director at Guardian Support, a health and safety consultancy for employers. Wincott recommends coupling a policy on substance misuse with a preventative and supportive approach to help employees get the help they need.

“An employee assistance programme is a great extra perk to offer employees as an additional benefit as this will ensure they can seek and be directed to support should it be required,” he explains.

One for the road

The UK is internationally known for its heavy binge drinking culture. But the drinks are no longer flowing freely in workplaces, where businesses are beginning to recognise the potential drawbacks and exclusivity associated with drinking.

Trends prompted by the pandemic, and a growing desire to balance our personal and professional lives, has prompted many workers – particularly Generation Z – to enter the post-COVID office with a sober-curious mindset.

While some employees still value alcohol as part of socialising and team-building, a growing number of businesses are adopting a more inclusive approach. Compassionate leadership, coupled with an understanding of DEI, is helping to normalise sobriety in the workplace.

HR managers should review their workplace culture and provide alternatives to alcohol-centred social events. For example, subsidising non-alcohol-focused activities and offering a variety of alcohol-free drink choices.

Prioritising the holistic health of the workforce is also crucial. Preventative policies, rather than punishment, will serve to discourage substance misuse while maintaining a healthy, supportive work environment that creates a sense of belonging for all.

More on this: everything you need to know about employee health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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