The Bazley report exposes New Zealand's workplace drinking problem

by The Listener / 12 July, 2018

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Using alcohol as a release from increasing workplace stress is fraught with risk – as Dame Margaret Bazley’s report underscores.

Why is it that many, probably most, employees are working longer and harder than ever, with fewer resources, yet nationally, productivity is sluggish?

An important part of the answer can be found in Dame Margaret Bazley’s report into sexist culture at law firm Russell McVeagh, which lights up several dark corners of our workplace culture. Apart from her suitably condemnatory account of bullying, belittling and sexual assault, the public-service doyenne found many employees were stressed by being made to work insane hours and “reward” themselves with binge boozing. The ethos of “work hard, play hard”, which had hitherto excused much of the behaviour that we now know to be plain sexism and bullying, was a direct consequence of highly stressed employees and alcohol.

The extreme partying was held out in this firm as the back-pat for doing extreme hours. Young staff, in particular, were subjected to a more perverse version of cruel boarding-school hazing. After days on end of overtime, they were expected to attend booze-fuelled events with seniors, some of whom set the example that sexual assault, boorishness and drunkenness were acceptable.

That women were the chief victims of this was inevitable, but still deeply shocking. The young Russell McVeagh interns and staffers who found the courage to speak out – and took the professional risk of doing so – deserve the whole country’s admiration and gratitude. They and the other female lawyers who have since put their profession under a public microscope have obliged other workplaces to take a hard look at their practices.

Among Bazley’s prescriptions is that the law firm adopt family-friendly policies, including ensuring no one be obliged to work overtime except in exceptional circumstances. Many other sectors need to follow suit, and urgently. Study after study has shown that stressed, overworked staff are less productive – and, more importantly, unhappy and prone to illness. More of us are in this category. Southern Cross and BusinessNZ’s most recent workplace survey found almost a quarter of employers noted their staff were more stressed. The larger the company, the higher the percentage of stressed staff. The cause: increased workloads and longer hours.

Few workplaces are as bad as Russell McVeagh’s, one hopes, but many could ask the same question that Bazley’s report raises: how efficient and smart are we really, when so many staff have to do so much overtime?

Too many employers don’t even think twice about expecting workers to do overtime as part of the basic employment deal. Willingness to work hard is part of why we make popular employees overseas. But not all hard work is fair, and too much is counterproductive. Work hours considerably more than the 40-hour threshold have wrongly become our expectation.

A recent example was the district health boards’ second offer for the nurses’ next pay round. The boards said nurses with as little as five years’ experience could earn as much as $90,000 a year. That, however, was achievable only with regular overtime and attendant allowances. Few workers resent a reasonable amount of overtime, and many welcome it. But the DHBs were pitching regular and substantial extra work as the norm.

Thankfully, hospitals do not add the “play hard” demand to the “work hard” one. But in other workplaces, alcohol is still the reward for hard work. Bazley found that the Russell McVeagh culture obliged staff not only to drink to excess, but also to tolerate others’ appalling and sometimes criminal behaviour while drunk.

Social tolerance for drunkenness is shrinking. But we still see drinking as the gold standard for work-related socialising. We know it’s a bad mix. Not for nothing is “the office Christmas party” an annual source of dread and satirical memes. As alcohol disinhibits people, it can blur important workplace boundaries, with disastrous consequences.

Do employees really feel more valued, or rewarded, because the bosses shout them drinks – typically in their own time?

The Bazley report did not satisfy all victims, but it does show that lessons from the #MeToo movement against sexism are broadening and deepening to the point where we can all benefit from treating one another with more respect.

This editorial was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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