Guest blog: Support for adult children of alcoholics at work
Zara Wright looks at the behaviour of adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) in the workplace and shares findings from her MSc research, as well as ways employers can offer support.
The knock-on effects of drinking alcohol while employed – from a quick half pint at lunch to daily binge drinking after work - can be stark. The UK economy loses more than £7 billion per year because of lost productivity due to alcohol consumption. Effects can include poor performance, absenteeism, and inappropriate behaviour; all of which can result in disciplinary action1. However, the effect of alcohol in the workplace may be much more wide-ranging.
In the UK, it is estimated that one in five children under the age of 16 grow up in households where they are affected by the alcohol consumption of one or both parents2. Studies have indicated that once they reach adulthood, ACOAs demonstrate high resilience3, but are also more likely to suffer from negative outcomes such as depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, low self-esteem and anti-social behaviours4 as a result of their upbringing.
Most of this research though, has been conducted in clinical contexts, with little research looking specifically at ACOAs in applied settings, such as the workplace. If one child in every five is affected by parental drinking, it is plausible that around 20% of employees will be ACOAs (one study estimates it may be as high as 25%5). So, how might their backgrounds affect their behaviour at work, and what impact might this have on their performance and wellbeing, and the organisation around them?
As an ACOA myself, I have increasingly reflected on how growing up with an alcoholic father, who sadly died from liver cirrhosis in my early 20s, has helped shape my approach to life and work. I had the good fortune to undertake a Master’s degree in Organisational Psychology recently and used this as an opportunity to look further into these questions.
I interviewed a range of people who were in full- or part-time employment and had spent some, or all, of their childhood in a household where they were affected by at least one parent’s consumption of alcohol. Some of the common themes that came up from these interviews are summarised below.
When describing their childhood homes, it was clear that my interviewees’ experience of parental attention and affirmation was much more inconsistent than it would have been for children in more stable households.
For some, this has led to a high degree of resilience as adults, developed from finding ways to adapt to adversity from an early age. This can manifest itself as a tolerance for work-related stress over long periods of time, or the ability to focus on large volumes of work.
However, this early uncertainty was also shown to lead to low self-esteem, and most interviewees described feeling a lack of confidence in their abilities in the workplace, even when receiving excellent performance reviews. They also struggled to set up boundaries between themselves and their work. For example, a poor work-life balance and thinking constantly about work in their free time due to a lack of consistent role models at home.
Another theme was the sense of shame and secrecy surrounding the alcoholic parent(s) because of the stigma of alcohol abuse. This family complicity when trying to conceal problem drinking appears to translate in adulthood as a disproportionate sense of loyalty to employers, even when unjustified. The interviewees appeared to carry their feelings of shame into their roles, constantly feeling anxious about being exposed as incompetent or being negatively judged by others. In order to cope, some were shown to develop people-pleasing behaviour and needing to be liked by colleagues.
Again, this behaviour appears linked to the lack of consistent affirmation the interviewees received as children, which can contribute to a fragile self-esteem. It also means that they often actively avoid difficult conversations with colleagues for fear of potential conflict, disapproval or unpopularity.
My interviewees also described regularly working in a state of ‘hypervigilance’ - a heightened awareness and watchfulness, a result of the need to anticipate unstable, and sometimes threatening, situations at home as a child of an alcoholic. This can offer them superior abilities to read people and situations perceptively, and then try to impose advance control on situations to limit any anticipated negative outcomes. However, this learned behaviour remains hard to switch off as adults and can lead them to ruminate on anticipated difficulties at work, even when they weren’t there. The need to be viewed positively, and to remain in control to avert perceived “threats”, also leads to some working extremely long hours.
Overall, it seems important for employers to create psychologically safe conditions and support for ACOA employees to thrive at work. My research suggests there are several areas for employers to consider, and to help them to offer support.
Tips for employers
Raise awareness in the workplace
In the UK, support for those affected by someone else’s alcohol consumption remains low6. Simply being mindful that having such a background can potentially affect ACOAs, and de-stigmatising the shame associated with talking about alcohol dependence, could help normalise how ACOAs experience the workplace.
Be mindful of perfectionism or unsustainable behaviour
The ACOA’s astute perception and ability to anticipate outcomes, and potential capacity for working long hours and appearing resilient, help them become valued colleagues. The flip side of this is that ACOAs can exhibit unsustainable behaviours such as hyper-responsibility and workaholism, which can lead to burnout. Supervisors can look out for these behaviours and encourage them to acknowledge when they need help and that there is no shame in this and help them put the right boundaries in place.
Offer mentoring or coaching
ACOAs may have excellent communication and relationship-building skills, because of their ability to adapt their behaviour to suit situations and the needs of others. Their need to be liked probably makes them collaborative and diplomatic colleagues. However, ACOAs can be destabilised more than their colleagues when conflict or tricky decisions threaten these carefully curated relationships, making progress to managerial or more senior roles difficult. Supervisors may want to put more support in place, such as coaching or mentoring to help the ACOA adopt a more objective approach at work.
Looking for support?
If you would like to talk to someone, the following services offer advice, peer support, helplines and in-person meetings to adults affected by someone else’s drinking.
Find out more
1. Public Health England. (2016). Health matters: harmful drinking and alcohol dependence. Health matters: harmful drinking and alcohol dependence - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
2. Manning, V., Best, D. W., Faulker, N., & Titherington, E. (2009). New estimates of the number of children living with substance misusing parents: results from UK national household surveys. BMC Public Health, 9(377). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-9-377
3. Park, S. & Schepp, K. G. (2015). A systematic review of research on children of alcoholics: Their inherent resilience and vulnerability. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(5), 1222–1231. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-014-9930-7
4. Harter, S. L. (2000). Psychosocial adjustment of adult children of alcoholics: A review of the recent empirical literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 20(3), 311–337. https://doi.org/ 10.1016/s0272-7358(98)00084-1
5. Hall, F. S. (1991). Dysfunctional managers: the next human resource challenge. Organization Dynamics, 20(2), 48-57. https://doi.org/10.1016/0090-2616(91)90071-G
6. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. (2018). Parental alcohol misuse and children. https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pn-0570/
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Please note Drinkaware uses the term alcohol dependent instead of ‘alcoholic’ and alcohol dependence instead of ‘alcoholism’. This guest blog has however been kept in the author’s original voice.