Sam works in the City of London for an insurance company, and is three years sober – a rare species, but one that appears to be growing stealthily. In the light of the Lloyd’s of London lunchtime drinking ban, here is her take on the City drinking culture, and the repercussions of alcohol in a working environment.
I wrote to Laura at Club Soda after learning of a ‘Mindful Pub Crawl’ event on Twitter, and was pleasantly surprised to see how well attended it was. I will be frank with you – I was surprised, very surprised. But maybe there is a changing of the tide, a tide that has been heading one way and with a strong force, for well over 100 years.
A little about me, before I convey my experience of working in the City of London and the role alcohol plays.
My name is Sam, I am 35 and I will be sober for three years on the 8th February 2017. All sober beings have a story. Mine, when I write it down, is so utterly clichéd, but one I am nonetheless proud of. And if I hadn’t ever moved to the Big Smoke, drawn to the bright lights of London town to work in the City, I would probably still be drinking now. But everyone has a catalyst, and everyone has a breaking point.
For a female, I am somewhat binary in character. I am all or nothing. A former colleague used to say I ‘loved or hated with such passion it was frightening at times’. And that part of my personality affects everything I do in life – I didn’t have one, sociable G&T, I’d buy a whole bottle and drink it. I was 28 when I moved to London, to work for a global insurance broker. I had previously been with the company in a regional office, doing the donkey work whilst stories were regaled of the brokers in London going to swish restaurants for lunch, drinking champagne, all expense paid. When I was offered such a role, I had just left a terrible relationship, was renting a room from a friend and needed to get out of Norwich – I needed a change. So I took it. And threw myself into the role with such vigour that it eventually left me exhausted and drained of all positive energy.
The City is 90% white, caucasian, male. So to be a female is tough – even in 2017. I joined a team of twelve – ten men, two women, all thirty five and under. We were a tight team, working hard and playing harder. Our boss actively encouraged us to take insurers out for beers and wine to get the deal done. It was like being at summer camp – Thursday and Friday afternoons were a blur, drinking in the street in the summer, in dark, mood lit wine bars in the winter. Stumbling home at 7pm totally hammered. But it was permitted, it was encouraged, and my team weren’t the only team doing it. Everyone did it – and still does. For me, the fact I was allowed that drink, and my drunken antics were forgotten about because everyone was drunk, made it all the more worse. As a young female, stumbling home on the tube, drunk and unaware of potential dangers to me, didn’t matter. Because we were all in the same boat – drunk, then consoling our sore heads with bacon sandwiches the next day. Myself and my other female colleague were trained in the art of ‘eating is cheating’ – drinking on an empty stomach, keeping up with the lads. No one cared – we received praise for this kind of behaviour. But then I am from the Ladette generation, that’s just ‘what we did’.
But this isn’t just an issue with the younger generation working in the City – there are the stalwarts, the ‘functioning alcoholics’. The crew I know of – five 50 something men, all married with families, drink daily. By midday they are absent from the office, heading to the old faithful pubs – the men only, Dickensian style pubs where no woman is ever to be seen, where pint after pint is demolished, talking about potential new deals but mostly, I suspect, reminiscing about the good old days. Sometimes, they will stumble back to the office at 5pm to collect coats, phones etc, but typically you will see them in the mornings only. As the week goes on, the redder the eyes become. But they have been so long established in their jobs they are never challenged – instead, it is permitted, and will continue until retirement, or worse.
If you were to walk into Lloyd’s of London on any given afternoon (even on a Monday), it is half empty, the business done for the day, most underwriters sloshing down pints of beer in the Lamb in Leadenhall Market. It is harder to do if you work in an office, like I do. If you come back drunk from lunch it is obvious, so the rule is – don’t come back. Text messages will be sent asking for coats to be taken to pubs, for friends to come and join the party, for bills of excessive alcohol purchases to be divided amongst corporate cards. For names to be added to attendee lists to make the consumption seem somehow justified – even though those people were never there.
Banking and finance sectors tightened up its drug and alcohol rules years ago, and I think exactly the same should be done with insurance. Banking has its results published, but insurance doesn’t have that high profile buzz about it. In reality, insurance is a multi billion pound industry, but it is hidden away, like a dirty little secret, as is it’s alcohol abuse. To see that sober events in the City like Club Soda’s Mindful Pub Crawls are being attended, and attended well, is so positive. So maybe it will be the choice of people to change; not because it is forced upon them by legislative bodies and threats of fines for misconduct.
For me, being sober in this kind of working environment has been easy, because I am all or nothing. I don’t judge others, I choose to live my life differently. I now hold my work meetings in some of the great coffee shops we have in the City – instead of being a gin connoisseur, I am now a coffee bean maestro. I am pregnant now, something if you had told me three years ago, I would have laughed. But I made the choice – then the real me came out, I met my partner, I settled. The chaotic Sam is calmer. Before I was pregnant I was called boring, dull, dead on the inside, because I didn’t want to go to the pub . It is sad to see, that in 2017, alcohol is still so readily and easily abused in the insurance industry. But because everybody is doing it, and everybody is hungover, there is no shame, no embarrassment – and because of this, that somehow makes it ok.
For more on the City drinking culture, watch this clip with Laura on BBC London news.