Christmas parties and team-building days: What’s the problem with forced fun at work?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Over a quarter of employees aren’t keen on the idea of work Christmas parties. Photo: Getty

It’s an unfortunate scenario we’ve all found ourselves in at some point. You open an enthusiastic email from your boss announcing a fun activity to improve office relations and boost morale - and you begin to think of ways to escape the hell that awaits.

Whether it’s a team-building day, a lunch or a boozy party with the management, compulsory happiness at work can be excruciating for some people.

For many employers, work-related social events can be an inexpensive and easy-to-organise perk. Done in the right way, they can increase productivity and reduce stress - allowing staff to blow off steam and get to know colleagues outside of work. There may also be free drinks.

There is a darker side to forced fun at work, however. In a poll of 1000 workers, employee benefits consultancy Perkbox found that just over a quarter (27%) of respondents aren’t keen on the idea of work Christmas parties, because they don’t believe employees should be ‘forced’ into fun at the whims of their bosses.

A third said they don’t enjoy socialising with colleagues at festive bashes whatsoever and 30% said they find Christmas parties too intimidatingly cliquey.

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In some cases, enforced fun is a facade for something altogether darker. In 2011, British researchers Peter Fleming and Andrew Sturdy investigated an unnamed Australian call center which promotes itself as a fun workplace.

When they conducted one-on-one interviews with 33 employees, though, many said the “fun” culture was inauthentic. According to employees “you have to be able to see the lighter side of things… you have to be bouncy and willing to try anything” and that failing to make it to the fun away days could result in penalties.

“Forcing social interactions when employees would rather not cause more harm than good, especially if the event is happening after work hours,” says Alan Price, CEO and HR expert at HR software firm, BrightHR.

“Mandatory events are less likely to be considered fun by a workforce and employees who feel they have to take part. This action could have the opposite effect than the employer's original intentions; rather than strengthening an employment relationship, it could serve to damage it.”

There could be many reasons why some employees may not wish to join in. It may be that employees who do not enjoy drinking, or do not drink due to their religious beliefs, may be put-off from attending if it is a boozy event. Some people may be shy or introverted, making loud parties with colleagues they don’t know a nightmare.

READ MORE: How to cope with stress at work

“Alternatively, some employees may not be able to join in more sporty activities due to a condition or prefer not to,” Price adds.

It may be that employees are already overworked and spend too much time in the office alongside managers and co-workers, so they would rather go home to family after work. Others may prefer to work their allocated hours and go home at the end of the day, rather than spend more time thinking about work - as is often the case when socialising with co-workers.

“Although there are steps employers can take to try to encourage inclusivity, such as holding a staff survey to ascertain the needs and requirements of the workforce as a whole, employers should always be mindful of the potential for discrimination,” says Price.

“Remember that no employee should feel they are being treated less favourably, either by their manager or colleague.”

There’s nothing wrong with a few drinks after work for those who want to attend, but it’s important to remember that there can’t be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that will suit every taste.

“If the same employees seem to be not attending every time, it could be a sign that these activities are not taking the needs and interests of everyone into account,” Price adds.