How to navigate the works Christmas party

After years of Covid restrictions, the works Christmas party is back on the agenda, but be wary of the pitfalls, says Mike Murphy, of the Department of Applied Psychology at UCC
How to navigate the works Christmas party

LETTING YOUR HAIR DOWN: But alcohol can create problems. Picture posed by models

THE Christmas season is approaching rapidly, and with it - especially in the first festive season after the ending of all social restrictions - will certainly come a plethora of opportunities for social engagement, including the work Christmas party.

These annual events can be a great opportunity for colleagues to mix and mingle outside of work; contribute to positive relationships and new friendships; and allow employers make a gesture of goodwill to workers.

But, every year, we hear stories of negatives - from the more minor outcome of deep mortification after speaking too openly or emotionally, through serious damage to relationships and unpleasant or abusive behaviour; to people being reported to HR, subjected to discipline, even dismissed.

Christmas parties are a notorious minefield, and a thread running through all of this is alcohol.

We all know this, yet people still fall into the waiting trap. Why?

Shahram Heshmat, of University of Illinois in Springfield, reported several motives people have for drinking, some of which are clearly relevant to Christmas parties in Ireland.

Culture and social norms

Humans are social animals, and much of how we understand and judge ourselves is through comparison with others.

We are likely to try to avoid being different to our peers, so we tend to conform to perceived norms.

If we live in a society where drinking is common, we are more likely to drink too, and Ireland’s reputation as a heavy drinking nation is not undeserved.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation reported that this country was among the world’s highest per person consumers of alcohol.

Whilst not at the heaviest (take a bow, Czechia), Ireland came in 6th. When it came to binge drinking, we ranked 2nd. Our societal norms predispose us to binge drinking.

Environment

Our behaviours can depend on where we are. How we understand our setting, what it brings to mind, can strongly influence us.

If we’re in a restaurant there will be cues - the smells, cutlery on tables, menus - that call to mind the rest of the restaurant experience, and we’re likely to want to eat.

A more acute example is that recovering addicts are more likely to relapse if in places where they typically used.

Pub settings, with their smells, sights, sounds, will naturally stimulate us to drink. Christmas parties in such venues are likely to encourage drinking.

Stress and anxiety

Alcohol is a common fallback for those experiencing anxiety, including (or perhaps particularly) social anxiety. Alcohol can relax people, make them feel more open and sociable, and so act as a social lubricant.

Christmas parties can be an ordeal for introverted, shy people and so alcohol can be a crutch.

Mike Murphy, of the Department of Applied Psychology at UCC
Mike Murphy, of the Department of Applied Psychology at UCC

These three factors help understand why traditional Christmas work parties in Ireland - in licensed premises, with people we often don’t know well personally, associated with work stress - can be a real danger.

The risk is exacerbated by how alcohol has its effects on our consciousness. It initially energises us, but alcohol is a depressant. It works by increasing the activity of a brain chemical called GABA.

GABA is an extremely valuable substance, which slows our brain activity, reducing seizure risk, and keeping us within healthy parameters. Alcohol co-opts this chemical. But it feels like a stimulant because its first impact is on the frontal lobes, where our inhibitions lie. This is why alcohol can be a social lubricant.

However the effects only start in the frontal lobes, and then spread, so if we continue to drink we’ll find our words slurring, our co-ordination compromised, and our ability to read situations and spot risks affected.

An additional consideration is that if we are enjoying the situation, our guard is down and we keep drinking - if two drinks are good, then six will be even better, right? But alcohol takes time to work, and if, by the time our first drink affects us to its fullest, we’ve already had three or four more, there’s real potential for drunkenness and all that goes with it.

Moreover, the traditional remedies like strong coffee just don’t work. Coffee operates through a different mechanism, so a sleepy drunk person plus coffee leads to an energetic drunk person, which isn’t necessarily an improvement.

In summary, Christmas parties can be great - but they are also a risk, and we know it.

If we drink too much, there’s really no way of sobering up except time. So be conscious of the risk - if you’re going to drink, do so slowly; eat with your drinks as this slows absorption; alternate alcoholic with alcohol-free drinks; and keep in mind that the pleasant early feeling can quickly become something quite different.

Planning tactics and continued self-monitoring can make the party more fun, and save a lot of embarrassment or worse.

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