Does the Tech Industry Have a Drinking Problem?

Work places and alcohol have some complicated history if we recall the Mad Men culture from the 60s. In present times, it’s common knowledge that the tech industry is fairly alcohol friendly, with beer fridges or kegerators presented as job perks right along the snack bars and ping-pong tables.

Though most employees are only permitted to drink at work during the Christmas party, for tech workers it’s just another day at the office, with some differences in decoration.

Theoretically, all this booze is meant to make the companies look cooler, more laid back, not like those stuffy old firms where they force you to wear a suit every day. Many tech companies have campuses and a big part of their employees are fresh out of university so it makes sense that the culture of binge drinking lingers.

Although it’s meant to make employees feel “free”, it turns out that this posturing creates a pressure to partake and alienates a large part of them who, for various reasons, would prefer to not drink or be around alcohol at work.

A study by Niznik Behavioral Health found that the tech industry (followed by construction, marketing and advertisement) offers the most alcohol friendly working environment. This is congruent with news of Silicon Valley companies offering free beer at any hour of the day, giving expensive liquor bottles as rewards and throwing alcohol drenched office parties.

Not Exactly the Best Way to Bond with Employees or Coworkers

It might seem like a little drinking will lead to team bonding, but, according to reports from employees it actually results in revealing secrets to colleagues they later regret or complaining about management issues in such a way that it can be used against them which increases their anxiety. On some occasions they admit they had become so intoxicated they felt embarrassed having to come to work the next day knowing they everyone had seen their behavior and might respect them less.

Those who choose to abstain from drinking alcohol admitted to making up excuses so they could get out of attending work events or pretending to drink if they felt their absence would have negative consequences on their career prospects.

Drinking Culture and Sexual Harassment

According to a study from 2004 by Cornell University there’s a strong link between a workplace cultures which are very permissive towards alcohol consumption and sexual harassment of the female employees.

The researchers focused on “gender harassment” which involves making degrading or offensive comments or gestures towards women. This creates a hostile workplace environment for them so it’s counter productive to the goal of encouraging team bonding.

Chronic Stress and Burnout

A survey done by Blind found that more than half of the employees from companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Uber and Facebook report experiencing symptoms of job burnout citing factors such as unreasonable workload, excessive overtime and unfair compensation as causes.  

Tech companies are known to expect a very high level of passion and engagement from their employees, the reasoning being that if you love what you do, you shouldn’t mind putting in the extra hours.

This leads to a toxic culture where being physically tired after routinely working 70 hours per week or more translates to “lacking passion”. It actually means putting your bottom line above the health of your employees.

Especially in the gaming sector, working overtime, or crunch, as it’s referred to, requires employees to put in over one hundred hours of work per week  at the expense of their well-being and personal life, or it means they don’t care about their job, they’re doing it for money and not out of passion. This is a flimsy mask for exploitation.  

The Link Between Chronic Stress and Addiction

At present, researches have found strong evidence pointing to a link between chronic stress and developing addiction. This might explain how rehab centers mitigate cravings through therapies aimed at reducing the symptoms of stress.  

When the human body is exposed to stressful stimuli, it triggers the flight-or-fight response which shifts metabolic processes into high gear. When the stress is acute (for a short period of time) it helps the individual stay focused and motivated.

In cases of chronic stress (exposure to stressful stimuli over a prolonged period which is common in the competitive tech industry) this response places an allostatic load on the body resulting in a weakened immune system, changes in how fat is processed, decreased muscle mass and bone density.

Chronic stress also has a negative impact on the health of the brain:

  • The amygdala becomes hypersensitive and therefore more responsive to stress, making the individual more prone to anxiety
  • It prevents the hippocampus from getting enough glucose which leads to cognitive and memory impairment
  • It damages the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for impulse control and decision making

To increase motivation and focus so the individual can resolve whatever issue is causing acute stress, dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens, which makes him or her more sensitive to reward. Long term, this response reduces the number of dopaminergic receptors leading to anhedonia. Now the person is no longer able to experience pleasure from day-to-day activities and is more likely to engage in some sort of potentially addictive behavior to get a dopamine kick.

The way in which stress affects the individual will also have an impact on substance choice. Someone who is experiencing high levels of anxiety triggered by a competitive working environment is more likely to choose a depressant like alcohol to calm down, while someone with symptoms of depression will prefer stimulants like cocaine.

All this is to say that encouraging already burned out employees to drink at work in order to relieve stress and bond with their colleagues is making them more vulnerable to developing an addiction. Excessive alcohol consumption further deteriorates the same regions of the brain impacted by chronic stress making them slower and less effective at doing their jobs. Tt’s not advantageous for either them or their employers.

Silicon Valley is by no means an exception the rising rates of alcohol addiction that have swept the nation. This area has, in fact, the highest rates of binge drinking in all of California.  

Luckily, we have seen some tech companies like Salesforce and Zenefits change their outlook and prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in the workplaces.

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