When it comes to mental health, there’s a very tipsy elephant in the room

The silly season is upon us - a time that plants "at least a small seed of fear" across the HR industry. Thierry Lalchere, founder of Thierry Lalchere Consulting- HR, explains how protecting employee mental health shouldn't stop when the Xmas drinks are poured.

Recently I was sitting with a group of colleagues, chatting about how it’s been founding an HR consultancy this year, and a respected peer turned to me and said to me, “It’s going to be coming into the busiest time of the year for you, with end-of-fear parties and all the stuff that goes on there!” We all laughed nervously, because there is unfortunately some truth to it. There are very few HR people to whom the words “Christmas party” doesn’t spark at least a small seed of fear.

When the common catch-phrase from about October onwards is “I just need to make it through to Christmas” it’s not surprising that booze-filled End-of-Year parties are a much anticipated opportunity to blow off some steam for so many of our people. The escapism of the Christmas Party brings equal measures of excitement, pressure and risk.

We throw a bunch of creative people in a room, and we pump booze into the room, it’s like pouring petrol on a fire. Unsurprisingly inhibitions are decreased, and friction is increased. We know that alcohol directly affects our health: particularly feelings of anxiety and low mood; and even affects our sleep and digestion. Add that to the peer pressure that comes with drinking, especially here in Australia and we have a tinder box!

And it really got me thinking. So much effort is being put in by so many leaders across our industry and beyond to improve mental health in our workplace, and rightly so! business leaders’ commitment to mental health first aid training, their sincere focus on psychological safety, and increasing focus on equity and inclusion outcomes are energising.

It’s inspiring how many leaders are proactively acting to address burnout, how often I hear managers say, “it’s important for you to take some time out so that you don’t exhaust yourself”. And as we approach year end I’m also unfailingly impressed by Leaders’ understanding that this season comes with a lot of pressure from so many angles: family, society, ourselves, our religion, our kids, our friends, our clients, our social groups, the list goes on.

So with a strong focus on improving mental health outcomes, particularly in the last quarter of the year, how is it that we are still relying on alcohol being the primary source of entertainment at the end-of-year parties?

Despite it ostensibly being low hanging fruit, binge drinking at work events is one of the hardest areas for leaders to tackle, because no one wants to be parented by their workplace. To be fair, business leaders don’t want to be parenting their staff either. It’s a fine balance between facilitating the release of tension and human connection, and releasing the Hulk inside Bruce Banner from accounts.

“The days of social events being anchored in drinking alcohol need to be behind us,” said Helen Graney, CEO Jack Morton and Weber Shandwick Australia.

“Not only should every leader be concerned about reputational risk and a duty of care but, if we are going to embrace a more diverse workforce who value different kinds of social activities and put the welfare and mental health of our people first we need to re-think the purpose and shape of the Christmas party.”

So if you want to save yourself from the headaches, the ‘HR at the bar’, and your HR professionals from festive season dread, my top three tips for improving our approach to alcohol in agencies and brands would be:

If your only entertainment at a party is booze, you need a better plan. Give them something fun to do, ideally something that requires them to put their drink down for a moment!

Do you have non-alcoholic options that don’t feel like you’re nursing a water? And if someone is trying to actively avoid alcohol, can they get a drink from a place that isn’t right next to the bar, so they don’t feel the pressure?

Don’t force rounds! Peer pressure is real, and drinking at someone else’s pace rarely ends well. In our current economic climate a round is expensive, and some people will feel they need to stay in to get their money’s worth back. If you’re out and want to treat your team, put money behind the bar instead.

It’s a busy world and we all need a bit of a break from it sometimes. The challenge with alcohol-focused parties is that not everyone gets that break.

Non-drinkers, Leaders, concerned HR professionals, and recipients of booze-fuelled-bad-behaviour can come away from those events worse for wear, rather than feeling lightened.

Putting a (loose) leash on that elephant allows for a little escapism and social lubricant, and also takes action to protect everyone’s mental health.

Thierry Lalchere, founder, Thierry Lalchere Consulting- HR

If you found this article concerning or triggering and feel that you need support, please contact Lifeline on 131 114 or Health Direct on 1300 222 222.


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