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Last Updated: Friday, 12 May 2006, 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK
Last orders for the lunchtime pint
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

A pint
Is the lunchtime pint facing extinction? Only a minority of companies now allow staff to drink during the working day.

It's a sunny Friday lunchtime, the kind of weather that brings on a thirst for a long, cold drink.

After a week spent hunched over a computer monitor, it's easy to feel like the dust-encrusted, thirst-crazed soldier who's driven across the desert in the classic film Ice Cold in Alex.

You can almost see the condensation running down the curves of a pint, the sun glinting on a wine glass...

But hold on. Re-wind the tape, because that lunchtime pint - a cultural tradition in its own right - is disappearing. A survey from law firm, Browne Jacobson, says that 57% of businesses now ban drinking during the working day.

There have always been drinking restrictions on safety-sensitive jobs, such as anyone driving or operating machinery, but now the booze ban is being extended much more widely.

In many parts of the country, particularly outside London, an even higher proportion of companies don't allow staff to drink. In the West Midlands, the survey says that 75% of businesses don't allow drinking during the working day.

Liquid lunch

"If you'd carried out such a survey 10 years ago or more, it would have been a much lower figure," says employment lawyer at Browne Jacobson, Peter Jones. The trend has been driven by a combination of changing attitudes to alcohol - and a fear of litigation among employers.

Pints of beer
"I'm at the office, I'll call you later"
"If you went out for a business lunch, it would once have been unusual if you didn't have a drink. Now it's more likely to be a round of fizzy water and fruit juice," says Mr Jones.

Drinking no longer seems to fit with a professional image.

"Would you want to pay good money to speak to a lawyer who is reeking of ale?"

And companies have also become increasingly concerned about the risk of litigation if their staff have been drinking.

Booze blues

Among the employers that have switched to a non-drinking policy is Brighton and Hove Council.

Bar football
Pubs can include exercise facilities
"It was quite simple really - the council didn't want front-line staff smelling of alcohol when they met the public," says council spokesperson, Alan Stone.

And within council departments, they didn't want managers to deal with staff after they had been drinking.

The ban, which extends to staff attending council functions in the evenings, has not met with opposition, he says, as few staff would have wanted to drink during working time.

But isn't this too Big Brother-ish - with an employer intruding onto the private life of staff? Not really, says the council, because the effects of drinking alcohol will spill over into work time.

And employees cannot refuse to comply with contracts which include such a ban, says Mr Jones. "There is no human right to alcohol." And in future, smokers could face employers who will make clear that there is no "right" to a cigarette break.

"It's not about a draconian measure. It's just that society is changing - and it creates different pressures at work and it changes people's behaviour."

'I'm in a meeting'

But there are signs of a more interventionist approach towards how employees behave outside work; the survey shows that 28% of employers use contracts requiring staff to take drug tests if requested.

Beer tray
Chance for inter-department contact
Those wanting to stop daytime drinking can point to the health and economic costs. The Medical Council on Alcohol says that alcohol misuse costs industry 3bn a year through accidents, impaired productivity and absenteeism.

But lunchtime drinking isn't just about consuming alcohol, it's about the social side of working together, says the Campaign for Real Ale.

"There should be nothing to stop colleagues from being able to go to a pub and enjoy a meal out of the office, particularly as in many cases this is the only opportunity staff from different departments get to chat," says Camra spokesman, Owen Morris.

And he rejects the implication that a lunchtime swifty is somehow the same thing as drinking at work. "There is a distinct difference between visiting the pub at lunchtime and drinking during working hours."

Crumbs on the keyboard

But adding to the pressure on the long, lugubrious lunchtime drink is the threat to lunchtime itself.

Likely Lads, 1974
Whatever happened to the swift pint?

The traditional 60-minute break has shrunk to an average of 19 minutes, according to a survey in January, so that lunchtime is more likely to be the grim prospect of sandwich crumbs on a keyboard than a relaxed glass of wine.

The TUC says that employees in the UK have the longest working hours in Europe - and have warned of the high levels of ill-health and stress from this long-hours culture. Binge working as well as binge drinking can be bad for your health.

But what about the other losses from the disappearing lunchtime drink? All that creative thinking, team bonding and backstabbing? There must be more to work than working.

There are below-the-radar indications that not all office workers are impressed by the alcohol equivalent of the hosepipe ban.

There's an internet page doing the rounds which lists the benefits of workplace drinking, including "more honest communication", "making colleagues look more attractive" and "giving you a reason to show up at work".

Long hours, corporate claptrap, stuck at a computer screen all day, it's enough to drive you to ...


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Its 1222 on Friday, and we're off to the pub. Simple as that.
Andrew Page, London

Oh to have time for a lunch break.
Ed, Clacton

When I first started in the civil service 22 years ago going for a drink at lunchtime (particularly on a Friday) was the norm rather than the exception. We sometimes used to have a bottle of wine in the afternoon as well. Gradually though it's become less and less common and now people very rarely go to the pub unless it's someone's birthday and then it's usually soft drinks. There has been a big change in attitude towards it.
David, Devon

Having lived and worked in the USA for 15 years, I'm all too familiar with this. I think it's yet another indication that we're heading towards the gung-ho US corporate mentality across the board. We should chill out a bit!
Darren, UK

There's nothing to stop people having a soft drink... The Friday afternoon drink is blatantly encouraging drink driving. If you don't want to go for a 2-3 hour lunch you should be allowed to leave earlier instead.
James, Peterborough

Employees today foolishly allow themselves to become more increasingly the slaves of their employers, allowing them to intrude more and more into their own quality time. Lunchtime is my time, enshrined in employment law. Provided my behaviour at work does not cause offence it is none of my employers business how I occupy my lunchbreak - and especially if that is offsite away from work.
G Shadbolt, Fareham

Didn't get to read this article until 2:30pm - I went for a pint over lunch
Nick, Scotland

When I started work in IT 27 years ago serious lunchtime drinking was almost compulsory. Now I can hardly keep my eyes open after one pint at lunchtime. How age catches up.
Richard Lennox, West London

I signed on the line to abide by our no drugs and no alcohol policy when I started my last job. Everyone is tested when they join and its random from now on! My job? Police officer? No! Doctor? No! Civil Engineer, yes! Why? Because we build and maintain the infrastructure in this country, roads, rail, bridges, buildings etc. It's the way it should be. Other lives are at stake if we make a mistake if we have been drinking at lunch.
Lucy, Taunton

For us Dutch people it's unimaginable to even think of drinking beer during lunch breaks!
Herbert, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Boiling hot today in Leeds, every pub was packed at lunchtime, especially those with outside spaces for drinking. If anyone at work has anything to say about drinking, it's usually "is it your round?".
Yogz, Leeds

This is yet another example of US employment practices creeping in. Is my colleague who goes out for lunch less suitable than me who goes to the gym for an hour and comes back shattered?
Scott, Nuneaton

To not be able to have a lunchtime drink is just another example of how we are stopped from being individual people and how other people are forcing upon us there own values.
Brian Quinn, Tenerife Spain

What a bunch of whining alcoholics! That's right boys and girls. If you're drinking every day and/or complaining if your access to alcohol is restricted...you have a drinking problem. On the other hand, if your job/life is sufficiently miserable so that anesthesia offers an improvement, you have both my sympathy and pity.
Paul, Seattle, Wa

It's ridiculous. Of course one can't drink so much over lunch that one ends up smelling of alcohol when back in the office - but the debate seems totally undifferentiated. If I choose to have a small glass of wine with my lunch, and use my own judgement to assess whether this will in any way impair my working ability in the afternoon, why is this any of my employers' business?
Freya, London

As a business owner and boss, I know that drinking at lunchtime is not the problem... it's what it causes in the afternoon! Sleepy, tired staff, just wishing the afternoon away until they can top up again when the working day has finished. It's not very productive. I, for one, would like to ban lunchtime drinking in my company but I don't know if I have that right. But I do have the right to say 'If you drink alcohol at lunchtime please take the rest of the day off'.
John, London

Interesting article. I'm off down the pub for a traditional Friday lunch pint.
Jim, Sheffield, England

Blimey. Where I work we bring food and open a bottle of wine at coffee time if there's a leaving do, or it's the end of term, or it's Easter, or Christmas.... Having said that, we're librarians and not especially dangerous when tipsy, just friendlier. I worked for a financial company where the boss was especially obnoxious after his long liquid lunches. Hoorah for academia!
Kathryn, Oxford

As a manager in the railway industry, I am banned from drinking in working hours and for eight hours beforehand (which effectively precludes drinking after midnight on weeknights). I am also subject to random drug tests that would result in my dismissal if I failed one. Does this bother me? No, not really - if it did I'd work somewhere else.
Mike, Leicester

As I sit here on a lovely day looking out of my window at the busy garden of the pub next door it doesn't seem there are many people not having pints. Surely the other problem for most people is the location of their work is a fair way from the nearest pub.
Steven Wilson, Cambridge

Me and my colleages are going to discuss this matter over a few pints... I'll post back with our verdict.
John Clark, Aberdeen

The company for which I work used to have its own bar, such was the demand for a quick lunchtime pint. Sadly that ended about fifteen years ago and now we are all hunched over our desks reading the BBC News website and sending in rants like this. I think drug testing would be a great idea, can we have a pilot scheme in parliament?
Jim, London

If they tried to enforce a lunchtime drinking ban in Spain there would be a riot.
Adam Hayward, Barcelona

When the organisation I work for starts paying me for my lunch break then they can start dictating what I can do during that time. Until then I decide what to do in my time.
Janet Gladstone, High Wycombe, UK

I agree that employees should be dissuaded from drinking during their lunch hour. I've worked in several companies where it was common practice to have extended lunch hours on a Friday and return to work the worse for wear.The office then used to smell like a brewery and the workers may as well have gone home considering the amount of work they got done that afternoon!
Fiona, Nottingham

I am paid for 37.5 hours a week Monday to Friday. I fully accept that I cannot drink alcohol during work hours and happily obey that rule. However, what I do legally outside my work hours and away from the workplace is my business alone and as long as I am not hungover and thus incapable of doing my work the following day my employer has no right to pry into what I do or do not drink in my own time and I would resent any such intrusion into my private and personal life. All I want from an employer is my wages and a safe and comfortable work environment and to be treated fairly and with courtesy.
Steve Foley, Reading

So Brighton & Hove City Council have banned staff not just drinking at lunch time but also when attending council functions in the evenings - I wonder if councillors adhere to the same policy?
Steven, HOVE

What rubbish. Do what I do. Soak strawberries in gin or vodka, bring them into the office and have them for breakfast!!
Alan Rice, West Kensington

It's a shame companies are forcing their employees into a non-drinking policy. Whatever happened to trusting the individual? I can appreciate the concerns with keeping an image, but the idea of 'reeking' of ale is a bit too strong? With smoking laws coming into affect and a number of public houses having gardens or ventilated areas, wouldn't it be more wise to trust that your employees will consider the effects of alcohol and there abilities to work afterwards?
Rob L, Orpington

In the 10 years I've been working in the IT industry the friday lunch time team pint or lemonade has disappeared and it's a bad thing. Team bonding and friendship is practically zero and companies who try and organise socials in an evening or a weekend of paintballing fail because everyone is a stranger to each other where once we at least had seen each other away from the keyboard at little. As for drug testing, lets see the board take the tests first.
Sasha Bilton,

I dunt shee what the problem is with lunchtime pints. I've had shix and feel fine.
Rishi, Cambridge

PS It is a lovely sunny day and we have had a very pleasant 2.5hr team lunch on the river, with the odd drink, and since I am so nice the team junior can go home early since her boyfriend has just arrived from Germany.
Michael, London

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