Tolerating alcohol and drugs: A deadly habit

The dollar cost of addiction is daunting; the emotional cost incalculable. The stakes are highest in a family business.

By Janet Bamford

Not long ago, a woman and her husband's brother came to Ed Storti for help. The San Pedro, California, counselor is an interventionist. It is his job to convince drug and alcohol addicts to enter treatment programs.

The troubled husband was the 49-year-old second-generation head of a family foundry. It had been a solid business, but now both the business and the husband were in a bad way. The man drank too much, and the wife and the brother, both of whom worked at the foundry, believed he also used cocaine. "They told me that good employees had quit, accounts had diminished, and they were looking at bankruptcy," recalls Storti.

A confrontation had already failed: The husband angrily told his wife and brother that he was in control and that if they wanted him out of the company they'd have to go to court.

Storti gathered 14 family members, including one who flew in from abroad, to be a part of the intervention effort. In the face of such persuasion, the husband agreed to enter a five-week inpatient treatment center, and undergo continuing therapy. Today the man and the business are both back on track.

In these troubled times, any business is at risk of being disrupted by an employee's addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or other destructive behaviors. According to Leslie Dashew Isaacs, an Atlanta management consultant and family therapist, a generally accepted estimate is that in one out of three families a member of the immediate family has a chemical dependency.

In a 1988 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 8 percent of full-time employees reported using an illicit drug during the past month; 6.4 percent reported heavy use of alcohol (five or more drinks on the same occasion five or more times in the same month). Nearly 19 percent of full-time employees ages 18 to 25 reported using an illicit drug in the past month; 11 percent reported heavy drinking.

The cost of drug and alcohol addiction is daunting. A 1984 government study put the annual cost to society at $60 billion, from lost productivity, absenteeism, theft, prevention and treatment programs, accidents, and loss of trained personnel. The emotional cost is incalculable.

When the afflicted party works in a family business, the stakes are even higher. For one thing, the most powerful reason for getting into treatment may be missing: the fear of being fired. In a normal case, persons close to a substance abuser can recruit an employer to threaten him or her with being fired. "That has been found to be the most effective way of getting people to go into treatment," says Kenneth Kaye, a Chicago psychologist who is a family business consultant and a frequent contributor to this magazine. "But many family members in a business feel immune to being fired. The rest of the family then feels there's nothing they can do," says Kaye, "and that can drive them into the kind of denial that prolongs the problem."

Too, it's sometimes harder for family members to confront a loved one. "Alcoholics and addicts are extremely skillful at making other people feel guilty," says Nolan Brohaugh, a social worker with the Menninger Management Institute at the prestigious Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. "In a family business people protect someone far beyond the norm. A mother may say to a father about a son, 'If you weren't so bard on him he wouldn't drink so much.' Meanwhile the father is saying to the mother, 'If you didn't baby him he wouldn't drink so much.' Out of desperation they blame each other and neither confronts the person."

Frequently, family and friends actually "enable" the addict to continue the substance abuse, by making excuses and inventing alibis, taking over responsibilities for them, and covering up the problem. This is all done in the spirit of kindness and caring, but it allows the addict to deny his problem and to continue with minimal consequences.

To complicate matters, alcohol abuse may run in the family. "Where heavy drinking is the norm," says Brohaugh, "they may say, 'Grandpa founded this company and by god he drank a quart of scotch every day."'

Often drug addictions aren't apparent until the company or family notices some financial shenanigans. "With cocaine, people don't look much different and are skillful enough to pass themselves off as being okay," says Brohaugh. "It doesn't get exposed until someone realizes there's $10,000 missing or family members compare notes and find the person has borrowed money from all of them."

In addition, in a nonfamily business co-workers might go to the boss with complaints about such a colleague. But if the colleague and boss are both family members, outsiders might hesitate to complain.

"In one case, the father didn't want to believe reports by employees that his son was addicted to cocaine. His denial caused morale problems. Employees were losing respect for the owner. They thought, 'if this can go on what are we working so hard for?"' says Isaacs.

Brohaugh, who holds seminars on dealing with drug and alcohol problems in family businesses, has noticed some patterns of abuse. "One thing we've seen a great deal," says Brohaugh, "is an heir apparent, usually the eldest son, who didn't really want to be in the business. But because of the disappointment he knew would be generated, he couldn't bring himself to say he wanted out. Better to anesthetize his displeasure with alcohol."

This scenario is most common in the third generation, according to one expert. While a founder has a clear challenge to create a viable business-and the second generation must lead the business in a particular direction, the third generation usually takes over a company that runs to some extent on its own momentum. Therefore, he says, there is not a clear challenge that might otherwise motivate a family member who was less than enthusiastic about taking over.

Another problem that Brohaugh has observed in sons driven to substance abuse is some type of undiagnosed learning disability. "It's not that their intelligence is impaired," says Brohaugh. "They have a disability which interferes with learning the business. A kid who knew he wasn't capable would start using drugs or alcohol. Better to be called a drunk than stupid."

So what can be done for family addicts? At Menninger the treatment is two-pronged: therapy both for the addictions and the under lying psychological problems. Those with learning disabilities can also get remedial help. But sometimes the answer is leaving the family business. 'We say, 'Look, if you're going to stay sober you have to make that decision about getting out of the business. We will help you talk to your parents in a rational, non-guilt-provoking way,"' says Brohaugh. "Typically, by the time someone is abusing to that extent, the family accepts his leaving the business as the lesser of the two evils."

Treatment for the addict usually requires an inpatient stay. Sometimes having the addict go away for a period is actually a relief; by the time someone like that opts for treatment they aren't contributing much to the business and may even have been hurting it.

But for some small family firms treatment may mean doing without someone who may have been valuable to the company, even with the disability. "Businesses just have to make plans to do without the person for a month or even more. Other people will often rally to get the job done while the person is gone, but a family business should have a contingency plan for its people anyway," says Isaacs.

The family should be prepared for setbacks. Even with the most careful of preparations, the addicted person might refuse treatment, or will go into treatment but then have serious relapses. According to Brobaugh, usually one-third of patients recover, one-third have relapses and end up back in treatment, and one third don't get better at all or get worse. (The average Menninger patient has made three previous treatment attempts.)

A family must be prepared to make good on its threats to fire an addicted relative who refuses to get help. "A family must make it clear they are not going to continue to enable the addiction," says Isaacs. "They need to make a recovery contract with the person and say, These are the conditions under which you will continue to have a job. This is what the business will do and what the family will do.' A family can say, 'If you have a relapse but admit it and get help we will support you; if you don't admit it within 48 hours, you're out of a job.' Some also need a policy on drug testing," she says. "Addiction is a terminal disease. If it's not treated it leads to death, either by overdose, drunk driving, or physical deterioration of the body. If the family doesn't deal with it, they may lose the person."

If someone believes that a family co-worker may have a problem, Brohaugh suggests first comparing notes with other family members. Then consult a professional about evaluation, intervention, and treatment. Many treatment centers will do an assessment at no charge.

A typical inpatient program for an adult lasts about a month (teenagers require longer), after which there is ongoing therapy. A patient who lives far from the treatment center is often referred to a therapist and support groups in their hometown for follow-up care. Some professionals recommend that recovering addicts attend daily meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous for the first 90 days after inpatient care. The greatest success rates come when people stay a part of the recovering community," says Isaacs.

There are good treatment programs and centers all over the country. Inpatient treatment can cost from $4,000 to $15,000, and is covered to varying degrees by health insurance. The cost for intervention runs from $1,200 to $1,800. Most private centers try to accept patients within 24 hours, but some occasionally have waiting lists of a few weeks. "People usually come into treatment as a result of some crisis," says Brohaugb. "When the crisis passes, the pressure to get help passes." The horror stories about people unable to get in for months pretty much applies only to the government-run and government-financed programs. There's usually room at private centers. The question is how to pick the right one.

Counselors recommend that family business members find a center that has an industrial liaison. This liaison keeps in touch with the company, reports on the patient's progress, predicts what the company can expect when he or she returns to work, and suggests ways a firm can assist in recovery.

Family members are usually required to aid in therapy. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon can be especially valuable when the addict refuses treatment. "Even before they're ready to confront someone, family members can get support and guidance from these groups," says Isaacs.

Such groups can also help family members once the recovering addict returns to work. "Many times the family will not deal with their feelings about the addiction," says Isaacs. "They are ashamed of being associated with the addict and what they might have done to contribute to the problem." That puts employees in an uncomfortable position. Nonfamily employees are understandably curious about the addict and concerned about the stability of the business, but may be reluctant to ask questions. This is an opportunity for the family to turn the crisis into an asset, says Isaacs. "They can show employees that when the family and the firm have a problem, they don't cover it up, they deal with it." The family might want to bring in literature about addictions and treatment programs, or even a speaker.

Family members ought to acknowledge how they are handling the issues that affect workers. They should emphasize that the company cares for people who are wounded, and will work with people to bring them up to speed, but will not tolerate workers, in or out of the family, who are substance abusers.

Once back on the job, recovering addicts will have to set parameters about what to tell co-workers, and what to keep private. They should be willing to talk about the addiction, the treatment process, their job performance, and its impact on co-workers, but will probably want to keep mum about personal and family problems that caused and were caused by the addiction. Families should agree what is private and what is public, so all members can be comfortable and clear about what is open for discussion outside the family.

Here are some resources that can help addicts and their families: