Drinking alcohol has become deeply ingrained in our culture. For women, it’s been especially glamorized through shows like Sex & the City where sophisticated socialites go out drinking cosmopolitans and the Real Housewives series where ladies get together to dish and drink their daily “mommy wine.” Alcohol has become the catalyst that women connect over—it’s the excuse we use to get together and to cope with the stress of life as a working woman, wife, mom—or all three.
Drinking became especially prominent during the pandemic with people drinking while working from home, generating a plethora of liquor-bottle trash, a spate of memes—and a 25% spike in alcohol related deaths.
With the return to in-person gatherings, many organizations have returned to using alcohol as a perk, offering free “Wine Cart” gatherings, open bar happy hours or customer events where drinking is expected. Social drinking is used as an ice breaker, a networking tool and as a teambuilding strategy—and in the worst circumstances, even as an interview tactic.
Women are especially vulnerable to falling into poor alcohol habits. Across most industries, we’re still struggling to push back against male dominance in the workplace and fighting for equality and respect based on merit and talent. In that environment, a culture that normalizes drinking to fit in can be a slippery slope. If women don’t imbibe, they risk missing out on office camaraderie, which may impact their career growth.
Because human beings naturally have a desire for belonging, the pressure to drink to fit in is tremendous. But women’s bodies don’t metabolize alcohol in the same way as men. We spike a higher blood alcohol concentration, feel more impaired on less booze, and are at risk of being perceived as having poor judgment—even when the same behavior by men would be completely acceptable.
Not to mention, alcohol puts women at grave risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, each drink consumed per day raises a woman’s relative risk of developing breast cancer by 7%. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is a direct cause of 7 out of every 100 new breast cancer cases. But despite these risks, only 1 in 4 women are aware that alcohol is a primary risk factor for breast cancer. And certainly, employers should do everything they can to protect their employees from harm—not to mention the financial implications for the organization.
Companies and HR leaders have a responsibility to ensure women on their teams have the same opportunities as men to participate and advance their careers. Ensuring equity and inclusion in the workplace applies not only to gender, race, culture, etc. but also to those who may choose not to drink or have a personal connection to substance use disorders.
Here’s what HR leaders can do to ensure they create an equitable environment where drinking is not the status quo.
- Acknowledge the risk. Talk openly about the risks of drinking in the workplace. Acknowledge how expectations may have been formed around it and make it clear that you aim to change those perceptions. Educate everyone about the risks drinking creates and the exclusionary practices surrounding alcohol in the office.
- Create a transparent environment. Alcoholism is a disease, and employers need to create an environment where people feel safe to talk about it if they’re concerned—either for themselves or for others at work. Often people are afraid to speak up if they feel they have a problem out of fear of losing their job, and instead it comes down to someone else confronting them about their behavior. Make it clear that coming forward and asking for help will have far fewer consequences than being called out—that there are laws, policies, and programs in place to both protect and help them.
- Offer non-alcoholic activities. Instead of happy hours, host a games night, an off-site kayaking or hiking trip, yoga in the breakroom—or any other activity that doesn’t involve drinking. As an employer, it’s much better to invest in something that contributes to your employees’ health, versus something that could make them sick.
- Address mental health. Recognize that stress, depression, and anxiety can all contribute to the desire to drink and provide alternative solutions and coping tools. Beyond just providing insurance benefits, provide actual services that reduce the likelihood of employees turning to alcohol to cope, such as workload rebalancing, meditation sessions or access to virtual counseling services.
- Offset the FOMO culture. As women, we tend to set extremely high expectations for ourselves, which can lead to unhealthy perfectionism. We often operate out of fear of missing out or of being perceived as “less than.” Offset that drive to perfectionism in your organization by recognizing and celebrating women not just for their accomplishments but also their contributions, progress, and collaboration. Meanwhile, women also must recognize that staying in a toxic workplace isn’t our only option. There are other employers out there who would appreciate our talents sober. Employers should keep this in mind as well if retention is a priority.
- Support mentorship. Encourage women to find someone they can go to if they’re struggling, like a mentor, a supervisor or trusted co-worker. Contrary to stereotypes, women in the workplace are not always tearing each other down. There’s a lot of camaraderie, and if the women on your team need help, encourage them to find someone who will be in their corner.
Employers and HR leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the women on staff feel included and treated equally regardless of whether they choose to partake in an alcoholic beverage. Drinking in the workplace can lead to dangerous consequences for both the employee and employer and avoiding those is an easy fix: just say no to the work-sanctioned booze fest.