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Photo by Taryn Elliott from Pexels

Whoa there, Ina! In a video posted on Instagram last April that has been viewed more than three million times, celebrity chef Ina Garten demonstrated how to make a Cosmopolitan — or rather, a pitcher of Cosmopolitans. Because “you never know who’s gonna stop by,” Garten rationalized.

Garten then poured the whole pitcher into a martini glass the size of a bucket (two cups of vodka! a cup of Cointreau!) and began to down it with gusto.

“During a crisis, you know, cocktail hour can be almost any hour,” she said cheerily. “Doesn’t that look fabulous? Nice and cold — and lots of it!”

Makes you wonder how many takes were needed to get that video just right.

Garten is apparently not alone in her enthusiasm for tippling during the pandemic. Many workers have been enjoying their “quarantinis” during virtual happy hours. Liquor sales are up worldwide. Nielsen reports that in-store alcohol sales climbed 21 percent and online sales surged 234 percent during the pandemic in the U.S.

In addition, according to a December 2020 survey of 2,000 Americans (800 of whom were working from home and over 21), 46 percent of remote workers signed off early to pour themselves a cold one at least once during the pandemic. Forty-five percent of the respondents also said that they had drunk alcohol during the workday.

Conducted for the sparkling water company HOP WTR by OnePoll, 53 percent of those surveyed also said they had been boozing more often during the pandemic than before.

‘My drinking felt normalized’

“I would say, during the first six to nine months, I was definitely drinking more frequently than before the [lockdown],” said Beth, an administrator at a northeastern U.S. university, who spoke on the condition that she could use a pseudonym. Remote working, which she began in March 2020, was a contributing factor to her increased drinking, she said.

“A lot of it was because there was no transition in the day,” she said. “I didn’t commute home from the office, so I would have a glass or two of wine to end work and transition to a non-work day.”

A married mother of two middle-school-aged children, Beth said that she had noticed similar behavior in her friends who were also working mothers. After the pandemic hit, all her family was in the house during the day, the house itself had to be reconfigured, and she had to deal with family and work issues simultaneously. Like countless others, she felt the effects of stress.

“At 4, I would start thinking of that 5 o’clock glass of wine,” she said.

Drinking at that time, early in the pandemic, “felt normalized,” she remembered. “It felt like everyone I talked to seemed to be doing the same thing.”

While health professionals may not consider her two daily glasses of wine to be a serious problem, Beth herself felt she “needed to break the cycle.”

Binge drinking rose alarmingly early in the pandemic

One study by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center found that more serious drinking problems were aggravated by pandemic-related lockdowns. Binge drinking — defined as having five or more drinks for men or four or more drinks for women in a two-hour timespan — surged during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The study of about 2,000 American adults, conducted in spring 2020, revealed that about a third (34 percent) of respondents were binge drinking during the pandemic. In particular, those with a previous history of binge drinking were at risk, increasing their consumption by almost 20 percent during lockdown; binge drinkers with a previous history of depression and current depression symptoms were more at risk than those with no depressive symptoms.

In addition, the length of time spent in lockdown had an effect on binge drinking.

“Those [binge drinkers] who spent more time at home during the early stages of the pandemic were more likely to consume alcohol at unhealthy levels,” said Sitara Weerakoon, a doctoral candidate at UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas and the study’s corresponding author.

For every additional week binge drinkers spent sheltering at home, there was a 19 percent greater chance of heavy alcohol consumption. Some respondents said they were downing as many as seven drinks in one sitting.

Weerakoon pointed to the disruptions of the health crisis as likely associated with increased binge drinking.

“Previous research has shown that life stressors are a major factor in consuming alcohol at unhealthy levels,” she said. These stressors may include loss of employment and social isolation, two major effects of the pandemic.

Resources for those who need support

Tom Fox, a member of the general services board that directs Alcoholics Anonymous in Great Britain, has seen an increase in those seeking help to stop drinking during the health crisis. Services such as a telephone help line, online chat and email support have experienced a 30 percent uptick in demand.

“It was very significant, particularly in the early part of the pandemic,” Fox said of the rise in people looking for support.

As for remote workers drinking during the workday, he said he did not have statistics, but people who were alcoholics “drink at all times of the day. I don’t think this is necessarily a new phenomenon.”

Still, he pointed to the importance of a person’s environment in controlling alcohol consumption. If workers are confined at home, they might have more access to alcohol than usual, he commented.

Employers should encourage remote employees troubled by their alcohol consumption to take advantage of such established organizations as Alcoholics Anonymous, he said.

Everfi, an educational software company, recommends on its website that companies forego promoting virtual happy hours in favor of wellness events or coffee gatherings for their employees; consider communicating more about drinking in the company’s workplace culture and train managers to recognize the signs of substance misuse.

Weerakoon of the University of Texas urged that employers recognize that the isolation of remote work may exacerbate some people’s mental health challenges.

“Prioritizing mental health services is really important, as well as increasing awareness and access to virtual counseling sessions,” she advised. She suggested also offering opportunities for stress relief and socializing, such as virtual meetups.

‘Rhythm and structure’

Like 60 percent of the respondents to the HOP WTR survey, Beth, the remote-working mother of two, wanted to cut down on the drinking habit she had developed early in the pandemic. She had gained weight, often woke up with a dull headache and felt sluggish during the day.

In December, she decided she had had enough. She changed her environment during the late afternoon, when temptation was greatest, and went for walks. She replaced wine with a “really good tea” and stopped buying wine — so it wasn’t even in the house.

It also helped that Beth had gained more control of her daily life, after making rapid adjustments early during the lockdown.

“I now have rhythm and structure to my day,” she said.

The result: she has lost weight, has better focus and more important, she spends “better quality time” with her children, she said, playing games, watching shows or just talking.

“Not having wine allows me to be more present,” she said.

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