By Matt Bee
Alcohol is big news at the moment. Hordes of people are trying to make it through January without a drink. It’s been announced all alcohol is bad for you (even red wine!). And men and women are now curtailed to the same limits for consumption.
All of which makes little difference to me.The amount I drink isn’t defined by my gender, what month it is, or even which drinks I have in the cupboard (I drive past a supermarket on the way home; aisle 13 is my drinks cabinet most nights). I drink largely because of stress. And for this I blame social work. It’s a stressful sort of job.
When I get in from work, it’s that residual tension from a day spent answering phone calls, responding to emails, meeting deadlines and hitting targets, that drives my hand into the fridge. Just the hiss of a ring-pull or the pop of a cork and already I’m feeling better. One drink with dinner is all I need. I rarely drink more – but do I need this much?
Should I be worried? Maybe. I’m part of a growing phenomenon of home drinkers. Pubs might be closing down but sales of alcohol in supermarkets continue to soar. It is just the way of things now. Alcohol loiters in the cupboard at home. Most of us arrive home stressed. It’s not long before we put the two together.
But whether I’m the exception or the rule is unclear. When I’ve discussed this with other social workers they don’t seem unduly alarmed by my habit. Quite often it turns out they’ve habits of their own. From mid-afternoon onwards, it’s the thought of a glass of wine that keeps them going. Recently, on a social media site for social workers, there was the slogan: ‘You’d drink too if you were a social worker.’ You can even get that printed on a T-shirt or affixed to a mug.
So I don’t think I’m alone.
Social workers not alone
But then I don’t think social workers, in general, are alone. Many people – nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, secretaries – seem prone to having a drink after work. Latest research from the charity Drinkaware from 2014 found that 45% of people drank at least two to three times a week, with one fifth drinking at least four to five times a week.
You can’t even watch TV on a Saturday morning without James Martin telling you which wine to buy for that night.
And it’s not just alcohol, either. We all have our vices. For some it’s junk food, for others chocolate and sugary snacks. When the going gets tough, the tough often find themselves with a hand in the biscuit barrel. Isn’t that the case?
Why do we do it? It’s simple. Chocolate and biscuits – like alcohol – are a quick fix, and find me someone who doesn’t like a quick fix when they need one. Resisting the temptation takes the willpower of a deity, and many of us, being mere mortals, give in.
A well-timed slab of chocolate is about the only thing keeping me the right side of sanity some days. Unfortunately, it puts many of us on the wrong side of our ideal weight. And when it comes to alcohol, who knows what health problems I’m storing up?
The alternative is self-care. Mindfulness has won over plenty of supporters. Other meditative practices, such as yoga, also have a decent following. Unquestionably, yoga works, and so too does mindfulness.
But given a straight choice between adopting the lotus position and opening a bag of crisps, though, it is extremely hard to choose the more enlightened path. I find that chocolate, crisps and alcohol (at home) works better, faster, and is much more readily available. Many other social workers feel the same way – and it’s to our own cost.
Last year Community Care surveyed 2,000 social workers and pretty much all of them (97%) felt moderately to very stressed by their job, and a third of them were using alcohol to cope. Nearly a fifth were trying to meet the same need through prescription drugs.
I’m not sure what the answer is. Ideally our caseloads would be halved and timescales relaxed, but that isn’t going to happen. And, besides, as I’ve said, this problem goes well beyond social work.
In the face of all this, then, it is little wonder my attempt at Dry January lasted almost no time at all. I’m still determined to find a healthy way to practise social work, though. After all, what’s the point in helping others if you can’t first help yourself?
Matt Bee is a social worker and writer