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Alcohol in the recruitment industry – the language we use and the impact on company culture

When I started selling software to the recruitment industry, it was 2012 and I was four years out of university. I’d had success in my sales career so far and had learnt that real relationships were built networking.

Networking was synonymous with drinking, as were trade shows, conferences, client lunches and end of quarter celebrations.

At 25, I didn’t really think about my alcohol consumption; I was climbing the career ladder and I was having fun while doing it.

By the time I hit 30, three years into my career in the recruitment tech industry in Sydney, the end of quarter drinks were now end of month drinks and the networking was weekly rather than monthly.

My alcohol consumption had crept up on me. A couple of glasses had turned into a couple of bottles of wine, and once I had a drink, I knew more times than not I would drink more than I wanted to. I wasn’t having fun anymore. I knew I had to make a change if I was to keep my career and my sanity.

Everyone around me was also drinking, so it was very easy to hide my addiction.

Addiction is something that can affect any of us, at any stage of life, and in high intensity sales environments like recruitment, it is often a default to relieve stress with a drink or two.

We conveniently ignore the health risks because we want to numb out, and we make jokes about being high functioning alcoholics as we chink our glasses. Cheers guys.

Every event in the recruitment industry calendar is permeated by wine and beer circulating the room.

Only you can really decide whether you have a healthy relationship with alcohol or not, but judging from many of the conversations I’ve sparked when politely declining a wine, more of us are rethinking our relationship with our beloved booze than ever before.

We don’t like doing things that make us uncomfortable. Talking about addiction in the workplace is still as uncomfortable as it comes. The rhetoric I am used to has always been around blame, willpower, weakness of character, and it’s always directed towards the person living with the addiction.

Either that, or it isn’t talked about at all until the person suffering is fired for misconduct, or ‘leaves’ the business. Out of sight out of mind.

Brushing hard conversations under the carpet doesn’t help anyone. These are extreme examples, but if you’ve ever called in sick because you couldn’t face work with a hangover, or have had an employee drink more than was fun on an incentive trip or celebratory dinner, should you being doing more to normalise a sober-curious culture?

More and more studies show there is no safe level of alcohol consumption and that alcohol misuse causes more deaths than all other narcotics combined.

Understanding that having one too many can affect every aspect of our lives; I believe it’s time to start having honest conversations about how we can look after each other in the workplace.

The language we use is so powerful, and I believe there is much work to be done to break the stigma around addiction in the recruitment industry.

We all suffer from addictions, whether it be the more publicly damaging alcohol or narcotics, or the easier to swallow but equally consuming addictions to work, social media, perfectionism, whatever it may be.

I’m happy to have unpopular conversations like this because our lives are so rich and we do such important work we can’t afford to live with shame hanging over us. Addiction is a human trait, not a shameful secret and we can overcome it and be stronger and shine brighter than we ever have done.

If the word addiction feels uncomfortable to you, don’t use it. I choose not to drink alcohol anymore because I am a better version of myself without it. I still have a busy and full life, and my work is just as demanding, challenging and fun.

Since I have shed the armour I was wearing while drinking, my relationships with my colleagues, clients, and partners have all improved. I am happier, and therefore more productive (never underestimate the power of a glum mood caused by a big weekend to screw over your productivity) and I’m living authentically.

In an industry that is so people focussed, we have a duty to do more here. We’ve gotten better talking openly about mental health, while often pushing aside the fact that drinking even one alcoholic drink can have a negative effect on our mental health. And yet we often treat those who don’t drink with suspicion.

There is a long way to go, but the narrative is changing. The more we normalise non-drinking, the more comfortable we will become saying no to that drink we don’t really want without fear of judgement.

By speaking out about my recovery and how it has not only been the best thing that has happened to my career, but really my whole life, I hope to change the narrative.

Publishing my first article on LinkedIn on my sobriety provoked a reaction from many more people than I could have anticipated, with most of the private messages asking for advice and support coming from young men in the recruitment industry.

This is not a fringe issue.

We work in a high stress industry, with daily pressures to perform and in a culture that demands we drink to celebrate, to relax, and to commiserate. I meet recruitment agency owners and managers every day, whose challenges are all similar; how to keep their consultants engaged, high performing and happy at work.

Incentivising staff with long lunches, harbour cruises and weekends away are all great ways to bond as a team, but could you be doing more harm to your team than you realise?

Maybe the boozy boat trip on Sydney Harbour needs a rethink… axe throwing anyone?

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