Researching ACOA and the workplace | By Zara Wright
I am an only child, and grew up in a close-knit family unit that was very encouraging of my academic and personal success. My father was one of the kindest men one could ever hope to meet, a gentle and creative soul who quietly adored his family and friends without condition.
He was also an alcoholic, and very sadly passed away from liver cirrhosis when I was 22. Looking back on my 20s and 30s, I believe that I buried my sadness at his passing, and coped with the imprint that his drinking must have left on me, predominantly by throwing myself into my work. I focused all of my energy on my job – working extremely long hours, spending most of my days anticipating potential issues and anxiously ensuring that I could provide everyone with perfect service and outcomes – becoming viciously self-critical if I ever ‘dropped the ball’ in any way.
‘My father was one of the kindest men one could ever hope to meet, a gentle and creative soul.’
The arrival of my young daughter prompted me to re-assess my priorities, and over the past couple of years, I had the good fortune to be able to take a career break and undertake an MSc in Organisational Psychology; something that had been of interest to me for a long time.
I lost my mother whilst studying, and this, along with the wider context of the global pandemic, meant that my break also became a rare chance to reflect on how my past has shaped me, and my approach to work and life. I decided that I wanted to bring my lived experience into my studies in the form of my dissertation, something that I could not have felt comfortable doing while my mother was still alive, such was the remaining shame around my father’s drinking, and the need to conceal it.
I soon found that there was little recent research on the effect that growing up in an alcoholic home has on adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs) in the workplace, and therefore had found my topic.
In the UK, around 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 parents. Since the 1960s, these ACOAs were deemed more likely to suffer from negative outcomes such as depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, low self-esteem and antisocial behaviours. Recent studies have also looked at the resilience developed by ACOAs as a result of their upbringing, and how they can go on to adjust and have successful lives as adults.
‘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 parents.’
Most of the literature, however, has looked at the family and wider relationships of ACOAs, with few studies focusing on outcomes in applied contexts, such as the workplace. Given the estimated prevalence of ACOAs in wider society, it is plausible that there will be a similar proportion in the workplace; one approximation puts the figure even higher, at 25%.
It may thus be reasonable to suggest that ACOAs bring behaviours and approaches into work that could positively or negatively impact on their own performance and wellbeing, and those of the organisation and colleagues around them.
Existing research on ACOAs in the workplace suggests that they often struggle to establish professional boundaries with colleagues and their workload, ‘people please’, have difficulty separating from their work, demonstrate a need for control in work situations, and exhibit low self-esteem. However, these findings were often based on assumptions made by researchers of ACOAs more generally, rather than from observing them specifically at work.
A range of interviews were conducted with individuals 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. These interviews were then analysed and collated for the most salient or common themes.
Interestingly, many of the speculative outcomes from former research were supported by this study. The research also offered further evidence to suggest that much of the interviewees’ behaviour in the workplace stemmed from the difficulties they experienced as children in alcoholic homes. Many described a lack of consistent attention and affirmation from their parents which led to low self-esteem as adults; they often lacked confidence in their abilities at work.
All interviewees described the secrecy surrounding the alcoholic parent(s) because of the stigma of alcohol abuse, and this study suggests that being complicit with family and attempting to conceal the problem drinking may lead to negative outcomes at work as adults.
‘Some interviewees also described their resilience at work, developed from finding ways to adapt to adversity and to persevere through challenging circumstances.’
These include: a disproportionate sense of loyalty to their employers, even when unjustified; the subsequent unease with setting boundaries at work because of inconsistent role modelling by adults at home; and carrying the abiding sense of shame at the parent drinker(s) into their jobs, which translated into a constant fear of being exposed as incompetent in their roles, or of being negatively judged by colleagues, even when this anxiety was unjustified.
The study also shone a light on several coping strategies utilised by these ACOAs to mitigate these uncomfortable feelings and behaviours. Borne of a need to anticipate threatening situations as a child, many interviewees described regularly operating in a state of hypervigilance (heightened awareness and watchfulness) at work, which enabled them to read people and situations perceptively, but often at personal cost, as they were unable to switch this state off.
Hypervigilance also allows ACOAs to impose advance control on situations to limit the anticipated threat, or, as often described by interviewees, adapt themselves such that they would not be negatively judged and re-experience the pain of shame. This ‘impression management’ most commonly showed up as ‘people pleasing’: a strong need for affirmation and being ‘liked’ by colleagues, which bolstered the ACOAs fragile self-esteem.
Because of this need for approval, the interviewees often actively avoided conflict at work, adding to their discomfort with asserting their boundaries. It also led, in some cases, to over-working in order to be positively viewed, and maintain a feeling of control.
Not all outcomes were negative, though. Some interviewees also described their resilience at work, developed from finding ways to adapt to adversity and to persevere through challenging circumstances as a child. This might manifest itself in a high tolerance for work-related stress over longer periods of time and the capacity to focus on high volumes of work, or in their ability to anticipate, and therefore consistently and successfully counteract, potentially difficult or negative situations – again, borne of their hypervigilance.
‘Their skill in reading people well, and their need to be liked and to avoid conflict has also resulted in excellent communication and relationship-building skills.’
For some, their skill in reading people well, and their need to be liked and to avoid conflict has also resulted in excellent communication and relationship-building skills; these have served them well when it comes to working collaboratively and diplomatically with others. Clearly, however, while these tendencies have their advantages in the workplace, working in this way could ultimately prove unsustainable if appropriate checks or boundaries are not put in place.
Those approaching middle age also outlined a degree of coming to terms with their backgrounds, or the issues they experienced at work, particularly with regards to their self-esteem. Perhaps the natural familiarity with, and acceptance of, the self as one gets older, helps to reduce the long-term effects that growing up in an alcoholic household appear to have on ACOAs in the workplace.
It must be acknowledged that this study was conducted by an adult child of an alcoholic, and that the majority of those interviewed had a degree of familiarity with the characteristics of ACOAs espoused in the popular media. As such, these findings may have been influenced by these factors. However, given the scant research on ACOAs in the workplace to date, this study makes a valuable contribution to the existing literature, and suggests future avenues for investigation and focus.
There are several takeaways for employers wishing to understand how to support individuals who have grown up in alcoholic homes as children. For one, simply raising awareness that such a background can potentially affect employees, and de-stigmatising this or removing the possible shame associated with talking about its effects, could help normalise how ACOAs experience the workplace; in the UK, the recognition of the potential effects of parental drinking on ACOAs, and provision of support, remains low.
Potentially damaging behaviours for ACOAs at work could include hyper-responsibility, over-working, taking things too personally, and potentially burnout. Whilst these may present explicitly as problematic for some, it must be remembered that other ACOAs may also exhibit a strong degree of workplace resilience and tolerance to stress, and that these potentially damaging behaviours may be masked by high achievement or success.
A greater awareness of these overall tendencies in the context of an ACOA background by supervisors and colleagues could therefore do much to benefit these individuals more generally.
Potentially damaging behaviours of ACOAs at work:
- Taking things too personally
Changes in working conditions, particularly of supervisory figures or promotion to a senior role, where conflict or difficult decisions may threaten their carefully curated relationships with others, may also destabilise ACOAs more than their colleagues. Managerial support for these transitions, and knowledge that ACOAs will need to re-establish their position in relation to these, would also potentially aid such individuals.
‘Simply raising awareness that such a background can potentially affect employees.’
These might take the form of tailored career pathways, where managers demonstrate an understanding of the potential risks, and also the stigma that can be associated with discussing the effect that household drinking has had on them as a child. These managers can then create the psychologically safe conditions and support for the ACOA employee to learn to thrive, rather than unnecessarily – and perhaps, unknowingly – where they may continue to struggle in the context of this background.
By Zara Wright
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