Identifying alcoholism in the workplace

Peace & Justice

Even if you don’t work in a parish, you might find yourself affected at work by your manager’s alcoholism or addiction. Just as family members are affected by a loved one’s addiction, so too are work colleagues.

Many of us spend more time each day with people at work than with family members. We might even say that our colleagues are “like family.” When our employment dynamics mimic family dynamics, there’s a good chance that we will also develop similar behavioral characteristics.

The characteristics of the children of alcoholic or addicted parents have been well documented and reported. The different roles are familiar to many of us: hero, scapegoat, mascot, and lost child. When the sons and daughters of persons suffering with addictions grow up, they seek employment. Some will be afflicted with the same disease their parents suffered from. Their supervisors and managers have the general population’s 10 percent possibility of developing the disease as well.

The “work family” develops the same characteristics that birth family relationships do. In my work with secular and religious organizations with alcoholic leadership, I have seen the following characteristics:

Characteristics of colleagues of addicted managers and supervisors

  • We care about the well-being of our organization and are protective of it.
  • We have the characteristics of “heroes” especially in the helping professions (social workers, teachers, counselors, ministers, church employees, nonprofit agency employees, etc.).
  • We assume responsibility for our supervisor’s unmet responsibilities and realize some status or authority perks—-the rewards for doing the boss’s work.
  • Some of us become scapegoats in the opinion of other protectors of the boss.
  • We keep the secret, and the operation thrives for a time because we do more than we were hired to do.
  • We adapt to the addicted reality and become unsure about intervening.
  • We become unsure of our own job security as our addicted manager needs scapegoats to blame for things that fail.
  • We, like children of alcoholics, guess at what normal is. We think every office works like ours does.
  • We are not sure whether to trust colleagues.
  • We can be threats to the sobriety of our recovering manager and/or a challenge to a new manager. We need treatment, too.

Many organizations have made great strides in addressing the needs of good employees who suffer the disease of addiction, including managers. We are just beginning, however, to address the treatment needs of their colleagues. Addiction is a family disease. Addiction is also an organization disease.

This article is a sidebar that accompanies “When Father has a drinking problem” which appeared in the June 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 6, pages 23-27).

Image: iStock/Steve Mcsweeny

About the author

Father William Stenzel

Father William Stenzel is a pastor in the Archdiocese of Chicago and a guest lecturer and spiritual director at Guest House treatment center for clergy and religious.

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