Mad Men and the Resurgence of Office Drinking

Much literal and digital ink has been spilled covering small-screen superstar Jon Hamm’s exit from a 30-day alcohol rehab session on Wednesday. We, too, commend Hamm for taking responsible, healthful strides toward getting sober, just as we would anyone battling with addiction on the red carpet or on Main Street.

It’s Hamm’s gig on the AMC series Mad Men, however, that’s rousing the most media attention and drawing parallels between the actor’s (read: our) world and that of his copywriting, hard-drinking turn as Don Draper.

The acclaimed program, which will premiere its final season April 5, depicts Manhattan’s ad agencies during their 1960s and 70s “golden age”: an era bubbling with effervescent one-liners, sales pitches, and alcohol in the office cabinet.

Nobody in the show can do anything at work, the meme goes, without drink in hand. You wouldn’t be remiss to think it’s bourbon whiskey, not Don Draper, seeding his company’s daring, brilliant advertising copy for all the time it spends on screen with him. That it’s bourbon whiskey acquiring the A-list client and consummating so many flings behind frosted office glass. It’s a troubling glamorization of alcohol abuse in the workplace, made all the more perturbing when compounded by the show’s popularity and cultural cachet.

Simply put, Mad Men has become a pulp-pop force, steering popular culture and consumer trends during its historic run, including—yes—drinking habits. Some observers call this phenomenon the “Mad Men Effect”—sales of bourbon and whiskey, both heavily poured in Mad Men’s restaurants and boardrooms, have soared since the show’s premiere in 2007.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that American companies have begun stocking their break rooms with keg refrigerators alongside the water cooler, as well. Count Google, Yelp, Dropbox, and numerous smaller firms among the nation’s alcohol-accessible offices. Companies introducing alcohol into the workplace, the Wall Street Journal reports, are doing so to “loosen up the office” and “keep people on the job longer.”

As the modern work day grows longer and the lines between work and home life blur, it seems that young CEOs like Thrillist Media Group’s Ben Lener are, as the Journal reports, “fine if you are having a beer out on your desk, sticking around and doing more work and enjoying yourself doing it.”

A Dicey Proposal

But according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol use at work more often results in disciplinary action from management, poor decision-making and loss of efficiency than that “Eureka!” moment in your team’s brainstorming sessions. Kirshenbaum, Bond, Senecal + Partners’ Jonah Bloom, whose office hosts sporadic open-bar mixers for its employees, admitted to ABC News it might even be the buzz of socializing with co-workers—not the suds themselves—boosting company morale.

Drinking on the job can also cause physical harm, increasing the risk of office accidents and heightening danger on the road once intoxicated employees “clock out.” The Journal reports that human resources professionals and employment lawyers are additionally concerned that normalizing office drinking can lead to greater instances of physical assault and sexual harassment in the workplace.

The International Labor Organization estimates that upwards of 40 percent of work-related accidents are related to alcohol use.

Perhaps most insidious is how alcohol-accessible workplaces might impact “functional alcoholics” in the office. These addiction sufferers, like Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, hold down careers, families and friends without facing the typical, debilitating consequences of alcohol dependence. As such, functional alcoholics don’t think of their alcohol as an obstacle, denying the potential dangers until the facade of control collapses with prolonged, unchecked alcohol abuse. Until that moment arrives, however, it might be impossible to spot a functional alcoholic in need of help—particularly in a workplace that normalizes drinking during regular office hours.

It doesn’t matter how sophisticated the C-Suite, noon-guzzled Old Fashioned might appear in Mad Men’s funhouse-mirror world, or whether the series will take its curtain call standing among TV’s most celebrated endeavors.

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse remain devastating health crises impacting nearly 15 million working Americans every year, including one of Mad Men’s own. There are numerous safe, sober options for zapping some energy into the work day—a catered breakfast or lunch in the office, or a company kickball game in the park.

Alcohol and the workplace, however, simply shouldn’t mix.

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