What is the impact of substance abuse on family owned businesses?

Business Leader Post, May 16, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

Alcoholism has some remarkable statistics: 85% per cent of adult children of alcoholics either become an alcoholic or marry one.  Alcoholism is a disease.  Research indicates that families and some ethnic groups have a physiological makeup that processes alcohol differently from others. For example, one person can have one or two drinks; and the alcohol can have its “desired effect,” while others may have to have eight or nine drinks to experience the same effect.  The absorption of that much alcohol has a separate impact on the body--it can begin to “crave” the alcohol as a physical demand that the person who only “needs” one or two drinks never experiences.  Unless one is educated and/or sensitive to these facts, children who grow up with alcoholism in their family are indeed at risk. Alcoholism is insidious.

While I have no statistical evidence, anecdotal evidence suggests that my client population has a lager presence of substance abuse than the population at large. The first explanation that comes to my mind is that families will bring other family members who have psychological challenges into the business as a way of providing them with a “safe haven." This decision eventually backfires: The business gets compromised by carrying an underperforming or troubled family member, and problems within the family escalate. Interestingly enough, this situation occurs in a relatively small percentage of my client population because these families either remain in denial and don’t bring in outsiders, or they are educated and bring in experts in substance abuse.

My clients who have substance abuse in their history suffer the impact of that history on their ability to communicate effectively as a family and as individuals. Usually the impact of alcoholism manifests in conflict between and among family members. That conflict can become an intolerable personal/professional experience and, obviously, have a negative impact on the performance of the business.

The demands of the consultation require a full emotional commitment from each family member that translates into their contributing both their time and their money to the project. What is remarkable to me is that they struggle through it. Believe me--regardless of the potential rewards of better family relationships and a sounder business, it is difficult and painful to face your demons. It is my belief that any family that chooses a family business consultation has an unconscious belief that the strength of the family bonds are strong enough to support the weight of the emotional issues that they will be facing.

Therefore, I conclude that while alcoholism can wreak havoc on the family, in the case of those clients, it did not destroy the fabric of the family or the collective's and individual's capacity/strength  to do the "work." I have had the pleasure of bearing witness to what these families have overcome. Kudos and compliments to them. Maybe it is true that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."