Originally posted on Steps to Recovery

Workplace Stress as a Trigger for Addiction

For many people the stereotypical image they have of an addict is someone who is unemployed and homeless. However, Government figures show that this is far from the case. Indeed, a recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that while the incidence of substance abuse is higher among people who are not in employment, overall the majority of people abusing alcohol or drugs are working(1).

Which Sectors Are Most Prone to Addiction in the Workplace?

Their data shows that of the 19.6 million adults of working age with a substance misuse disorder 72% are employed compared to 11% who are seeking work and 17% who are not in the labor market. Although many factors can trigger substance abuse and dependency, stress is a known contributor to heavy drinking and drug taking, so work related stress may help to explain why so many employees suffer from addictions to ecstasy. While reliance on alcohol abuse and drugs can have serious implications for workers and their employers, learning to manage stress and the availability of workplace interventions can reduce the risks of substance abuse.

Workplace strees

Although the reasons behind substance dependency are multi-factorial, it is plausible that in some of the industries above there is a link between stress and substance abuse in the workplace, as work related stress is highly prevalent with the CDC reporting that 40% of workers feel very or extremely stressed(3). For instance, heavy workloads and long hours are known to contribute to job stress, which are potentially applicable in any sector, particularly when staff shortages and poor management are an issue. Shift work is also a recognized stressor, which is often a requirement when working in hospitality, support services and heavy industries. Job security and concerns about career progression is additionally a widespread problem, but this is sometimes felt most among the creative industries, and can add to work stress. Employment that doesn’t utilize someone’s range of skills can lead to frustration and in an administrative position with little chance for flexibility or self-initiative this can result in a different type of stress.

Even though substance abuse is less prevalent among other industries, it is still an issue, even among those that you might least expect. For example, around 6% of those working in health and social care take drugs for recreational purposes and 4% abuse alcohol. Understanding of the dangers of substance abuse among these employees is high, but is not sufficient to deter them from these destructive behaviors when under pressure at work, and the nature of their work means they are more likely to misuse prescription drugs. This is possible via self-prescription by physicians and for those nurses involved in administering drugs to patients(4). Professionals working in the legal sector are also at risk of substance dependency, with extensive hours and intensive work contributing to stress and its associated drinking and drug taking(5).

Work Stress Symptoms and Substance Abuse

Any form of stress induces an immediate reaction within the body, which subside once the issue resolves. However, long-term occupational stress can impact on your physical and mental health(6), which may lead to a long battle with heroin addiction. Among the initial physical effects of stress are headaches, muscle pain, fatigue, digestive upset, insomnia and increased susceptibility to infections, as well as an increased risk of chronic health problems such as raised blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Taking over-the-counter painkillers to relieve aches and pains may prove ineffective to manage discomfort when the underlying trigger is not managed and may lead to pursuit of stronger prescription painkillers, opening the door to possible opiate dependence. Similarly, stress and alcohol abuse may be connected when drink is used as a muscle relaxant to relieve pain from tense muscles. However, the psychological impact of workplace stress has an even greater link with substance misuse. Anxiety and depression commonly accompany occupational stress, and when using alcohol and drugs to self-medicate and escape from work-related problems, it is easy to understand how with stressaddiction to meth can arise.

Effects of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Besides the risk that substance misuse poses to health, when employees attend work after drinking or drug taking, they risk their own safety in other ways, as well as that of other workers. For instance, staff members are more likely to be involved in a traffic accident on their way to work when under the influence, as well as in adverse events related to use of equipment or machinery(7). This can result in greater absence, medical care and worker compensation costs. Besides the costs related to injury, critical errors are more likely when concentration is impaired, which can have serious implications for business, as can reduced productivity of employees suffering from substance dependency. As work stress also increases absenteeism, while reducing productivity, when stress and addiction co-occur the impact for employers is even greater.

Workplace Stress Management for Employees

If you find yourself taking drugs or drinking to relieve stress related to your employment, it is a clear sign that you are struggling to manage the pressures related to work. While your employer has a role to play in ensuring that your working conditions are not contributing to stress and adjusting the nature of your work if it is adversely affecting your health, there are effective steps you can take yourself for managing stress at work. Among the measures you can take are(8):

  • Learning to manage your time and prioritize your work. Make a list of all the tasks you need to do, phone calls you need to make and emails you need to send at the start of every day, prioritizing those that are essential, identifying those that you want to do and the remainder that can wait. When timetabling these in, remain realistic about what you can achieve and always factor in time for those inevitable interruptions.
  • Only taking on as much work as you can physically handle. Learn to politely turn down extra work when your current workload doesn’t allow for it. If persistently heavy workloads are an issue, this is an issue you will need to raise with your manager.
  • Checking you are not adding to your own stress. Examine the situation and ask yourself whether you are being realistic about the importance you are placing on it and its outcome.
  • Taking up new opportunities. If concerns about promotion are an issue for you or the mundane nature of your work is contributing to the way you feel, discussing opportunities for additional training or adapting your role may help as long as this does not add to any other pressure you might be under.
  • Taking a mini break. Each hour let yourself stretch out your back, neck and shoulders to relieve physical tension, which can itself improve mental stress. However, you must also make sure that you take your full entitlement to lunch and any other breaks you are allowed.
  • Discussing your worries with family and friends. Their distance from work may help to place your concerns into perspective, but they are ideally placed to encourage you to speak to your employer about issues that only your workplace can address, such as unmanageable workloads.
  • Learning breathing, relaxation and visualization exercises can all help.
  • Adopting a healthy diet that is rich in unprocessed foods and limits sugar and caffeine places you in a better position to manage stress, as does taking regular exercise. If you are a shift worker these healthy practices may slip, particularly if you find yourself reaching for a coffee or sugary snack bar to help you keep awake, but these habits will only see your stress levels rise as hydrocodone addiction is on the rise as well.

When alcohol or drug abuse in the workplace have arisen as a result of stress, it is essential that you seek professional help to overcome your reliance on these substances and learn less destructive coping mechanisms. While you may have concerns about the disruption this may cause for your employment, flexible outpatient programs can fit around your working commitments.

How to Reduce Stress at Work for Your Employees

As an employer you have a duty of care to protect the health of your workers, which includes protecting them from stress that can adversely affect their physical and mental well-being. Assessing the risks that stress poses to your workers and acting on this assessment is therefore vital(9). This involves a five step process:

  • Identifying possible stress and the risk that these pose
  • Developing an action plan to minimize the risks of stress in the workplace
  • Implementing this action plan
  • Evaluating the success of the intervention
  • Taking further action as informed by the results of the audit

Although the specific measures you will need to take to prevent work stress among your employees will depend on the sector in which you operate, there are key aspects relevant to all industries that can help to protect staff from stress. These include:

  • Ensuring the organization and management are well structured
  • Providing a safe and comfortable working environment
  • Employees’ skills and knowledge should match the needs of their role as closely as possible and additional training provided wherever necessary, with supervision and guidance also available
  • All employees should have a clear job description that is adhered to
  • Managers need to talk to employees, listen to their concerns and act on these, providing clear communication throughout
  • Adopting an environment that promotes teamworking and socialization
  • Providing occupational health services for employees

How Employers Can Help an Addict

If you use drug testing in the workplace and it identifies an employee is abusing illegal (such as being effected by bath salts or prescription drugs, or an employee’s behavior indicates they are misusing alcohol or drugs, terminating their contract is not your only option. When you help your employees with substance misuse disorders to get treatment, you both benefit. While your workers achieve better health, a lower risk of work related accidents and a better employment record, you benefit from lower healthcare costs, worker compensation, corporate liability and absentee rates, as well as improved work performance. Your business may already offer a comprehensive health program that can help employees suffering from stress and drug abuse for instance. However, Employee Assistance Programs are also available that screen for substance abuse, refer workers for treatment, allow employees to access help themselves and make sure that they receive ongoing support. While most employers have these programs in place, data shows that just 23% of admissions for treatment are for employees and only 2.4% of referrals come from employers or their assistance programs(10). Improving awareness of the EAP programs you provide your employees in relation to drug abuse and alcohol abuse is essential, along with information about how your employees can access these services and that their use is completely confidential.

1. “10.8 million full time workers have a substance use disorder,” SAMHSA, accessed September 22 2014
2. “Worker substance use by industry category,” SAMHSA, accessed September 22 2014
3. “Stress at work,” CDC, accessed September 22 2014
4. “Physicians and nurses with substance use disorders,” Dartmouth College, accessed September 22 2014
5. “Substance abuse within the legal profession: a symptom of a greater malaise,” University of Notre Dame, accessed September 22 2014
6. “Occupational stress fact-sheet,” University of West Florida, accessed September 22 2014
7. “Opioid prescription painkillers‘ impact on employers and their employees,” Kentucky Personnel Cabinet, accessed September 22 2014
8. “Managing workplace stress,” University of Rochester, accessed September 22 2014
9. “Work organization and stress,” WHO, accessed September 22 2014
10. “Few substance abuse treatment admissions are referred by employers,” SAMHSA, accessed September 22 2014
Is Job Stress Eroding Your Health? by Judith Albright

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