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Drinking On The Job: Is 2012 The New 1966?

The TV show Mad Men has won fans for breathing life — and a heavy whiff of bourbon — into the fictional advertising world of 1960s New York. But surely no American company has such a liver-pickling culture in this day and age, right?

If you're unfamiliar with Mad Men, New York magazine has assembled a sampling of the show's drinking scenes.

And according to ABC's Alan Farnham, advertising firms are still at it — or at least, they're making sure that their employees have free access to liquor and beer while they're at work. And the ad companies are not alone.

Farnham reports that the list of agencies that serve liquor on the premises include names such as BBDO, TBWA/Chiat/Day, Grey Group, and Mindshare. Two other standouts include J. Walter Thompson, which reportedly boasts a 50-foot bar, and Kirshenbaum, Bond, Senecal + Partners, which creates advertisements for Glenfiddich whisky and Hendricks gin, among other liquors.

Company representatives say that most of the imbibing takes place after the day's work is done. And others say the drinks can help take the sting out of workdays that can easily extend past 12 hours.

But another common theme is the idea that drinking on the job helps co-workers bond — and it can also spark creative solutions. The ABC story was evidently inspired by a recent study titled "Uncorking The Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving."

Here's part of the abstract for that study:

"Individuals were brought to a blood alcohol content of approximately .075, and, after reaching peak intoxication, completed a battery of [Remote Associates Test] items. Intoxicated individuals solved more RAT items, in less time, and were more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight."

And it's not just advertising companies that are providing more alcohol in the workplace — out west, tech and startup companies are putting beer taps into their break rooms, as Bloomberg reported in a similar story last month.

The business news service reported that Yelp has installed "kegerators" to keep a ready supply of cold beer on-hand. But the consumer website's workers are monitored as they drink — they must swipe their work ID on an iPad sensor to get a glassful. Other companies, such as Twitter, reportedly keep beer and wine in their break rooms.

One possible benefit to boozing on-site is that it might cut the chances that a worker will air the company's dirty laundry, spill the beans about a new idea — or simply leave a top-secret new product on a bar stool, as an Apple employee did back in 2010, when he famously lost custody of a prototype iPhone 4.

Here are other reasons companies cite for providing booze at work, from ABC:

"Whether alcohol helps or hinders problem-solving, says professor Dalton Conley, dean for the social sciences at NYU, is a matter of degree: 'It's a fine line to walk.' If consumed in moderation, alcohol, he says, shuts off the self-censoring aspect of the brain."

In that light, it's not hard to imagine a sudden spike in activity for Human Resources departments, if more companies adopt an open-bottle policy.

But in terms of personal safety, it should also be noted that Conley isn't talking about drinking on the job when it comes to workers handling heavy machinery or tools — he's thinking of people who wrangle computer mice, and maybe change the toner in their printer.

"In a knowledge economy, he says, productivity 'comes in fits and starts, not on an hourly basis,'" ABC quotes Conley.

As for the dangers of increased alcoholism rates among workers, the professor says the free access might help the companies "weed out" anyone who can't control their drinking.

That idea might strike an odd note to those who see alcohol not as a social lubricant but as a potential source of dire problems for both employees and their companies.

As NPR's Shots blog reported back in January, "binge drinking in America looks to be an even bigger problem than we thought," citing a national study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And one detail of that study will come as no surprise to fans of Mad Men: "As was the case in the last survey, the well-heeled had the highest rate of binge drinking, at 20 percent."

That statistic could prompt a debate over cause-and-effect — one that is better argued elsewhere. But it's a good time to note that despite its new fans in the business world, alcohol is also blamed for a host of social and health problems in the United States.

An article at the Mayo Clinic site gives a brief overview of alcohol's possible benefits when consumed strictly in moderation — along with listing the possible (very) negative consequences of overindulging, which range from high blood pressure to certain types of cancer.

And for a broader, and more sobering, view of drinking and work, you can check out Dr. Joseph Nowinski's post for the Harvard Health Blog, in which he writes:

"Given that so many Americans have trouble with alcohol, we could use fewer opportunities to drink, not more of them. Relaxed corporate policies toward drinking on the job could nudge more employees into the almost alcoholic zone or beyond. When it comes to drinking and work, there should be a clear boundary between business and pleasure. To riff on the Anheuser Busch commercial, good things don't necessarily happen to those who don't wait."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.