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The 4-6 p.m. happy hour is no coincidence: Going out for drinks after work has become an American pastime — and an expensive one at that.

According to a new study from American Addiction Centers and Alcohol.org, the average American worker spends more than $3,000 a year on post-workday drinks. That’s enough to buy 650 beers, and in some states, we’re spending even more. Take West Virginia, for example, where the average worker spends almost $5,000 a year on trips to the bar with their colleagues.

But the cost of our end-of-the-day celebrations are not the only thing to worry about here. The risk of overconsumption in a workplace (or work-related) setting can have serious repercussions for both the individual and their company.

For example, 1 in 10 workers surveyed said they drink shots during afterwork drinks, and 15 percent said they have no qualms about getting drunk in front of their bosses. Perhaps most concerning of all, 14 percent admitted to having acted inappropriately during afterwork drinks. That kind of behavior can put a person’s employer at risk for a harassment accusation, to say nothing of the effect it’s sure to have on team morale and company culture.

Rethinking Happy Hour

It’s no surprise that so many American workplaces have cultivated drinking cultures. Going out for drinks has become a routine way to celebrate workplace milestones, whether it’s winning that lucrative account, finalizing a big project, or simply making it through yet another week. In many organizations, drinking at work is even encouraged, with some companies proudly promoting their Thursday afternoon beer cart perks for recruitment purposes.

The problem is, afterwork drinks can easily become, well, a problem. The average post-work booze session lasts almost two hours, adding substantially to an already long day on the job. This can contribute to exhaustion, brain fog, and overall lower productivity among workers.

Happy hour has also become a substitute for networking and brainstorming, with a third of the American workers surveyed saying that getting drinks after work promotes team bonding. While the neighborhood bar might provide a neutral environment where coworkers can discuss issues and ideas beyond the pressures of the office, drinking can also lead to situations where employees might say things they don’t mean, make commitments they can’t keep, or behave in otherwise irresponsible or offensive ways.

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3 Steps to Healthier Workplace Social Activities

While it’s true HR can’t really dictate what employees do once they leave the office, HR leaders can take steps to better manage workplace drinking and promote alternative afterwork social activities. Here are three simple actions to start with:

1. Help Managers Set Boundaries

First things first: Managers should never offer to get a drink with or buy drinks for their subordinates. Drinking with a manager has the potential to put employees in an uncomfortable situation, and unless the manager is inviting and buying for everyone, it could appear that they’re playing favorites. That creates an unfair environment for those who aren’t part of the office party.

Encourage managers to find other ways to celebrate or socialize with employees instead, such as buying cupcakes for the team or going out for a group lunch.

2. Offer More Inclusive Activities

Not everyone imbibes. You may even have employees who are struggling with alcohol addiction or are in recovery. Those who don’t or can’t partake are easily excluded from valuable social time with coworkers when the bar is the only option.

Offer more inclusive activities instead, such as a book club, a softball or volleyball tournament, a family fun day, or group volunteer activities. These can give everyone the opportunity to participate without the booze.

3. Encourage Managers to Set a Good Example

According to the American Addiction Centers study, more than 10 percent of bosses say they have no problem getting drunk in front of their employees. That creates a potentially dangerous environment far too conducive to inappropriate behavior, promises that can’t be kept, favoritism, and awkward or outright unethical situations.

Managers should set a good example by curtailing afterwork drinks and participating in other social activities with their teams instead. Doing so will encourage employees to follow their lead. If happy hour is no longer the place to be for networking and socializing, employees won’t feel compelled to drink so much.

While afterwork drinks often start out innocently enough, the practice can easily spiral out of control. As employees begin to feel pressured to participate, their performance, engagement, and physical health can quickly deteriorate. Business leaders must encourage more constructive bonding activities that don’t involve alcohol in order to protect their employees and their companies from the risks associated with afterwork drinks.

Nicolle Monico is senior web content editor at Alcohol.org, an American Addiction Centers resource.

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