Substance Use and Addiction: What Does Work Have to Do With It?

glasses upCould your job be encouraging a substance use disorder?

Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of their job.  But there are certain fields where substance abuse and addiction are more common, and they tend to have a few things in common. Research shows that high stress, low job satisfaction, long hours or irregular shifts, fatigue, repetitious duties, boredom, isolation, irregular supervision and easy access to substances can all contribute to the problem. But what groups are most affected?.  We know that employees in the arts and entertainment, mining and food services are more likely to report heavy drinking in the past month compared to other employment groups. On the other hand, employees working in healthcare and education are the least likely to report heavy alcohol use. 

Risk Factors Explained:

There are several factors associated with different types of jobs that may lead to an increased likelihood of problematic substance use. Low employee visibility and isolation can be high risk for substance use and misuse. Jobs that involve a substantial amount of travel, and therefore less direct supervision such as some sales jobs, construction or contracting jobs, can lead to increased substance use.  In addition, social and workplace norms around drinking and drug use can also contribute to the problem. Some work environments are more permissive that others and it has been found that perceived acceptability of drinking by coworkers is one of the strongest predictors of drinking behaviour. In some industries such as the food and beverage service industry, alcohol is easy to acquire right on the job, making it easier to consume. Therefore the normative belief that it’s okay to have a drink while at work, coupled with the easy access to alcohol can make it extremely likely that an employee in a bar or restaurant will consume alcohol while on the job. If the employee works every day, it can become a daily habit that can ultimately lead to it’s misuse and possibly abuse.

Another important contributing factor is the issue of employee stress. Stress can come from various sources including physical hazards or heavy workloads, tight deadlines, low job security and workplace conflict. These factors can lead to an employee feeling little or no control over what happens at work. Jobs that offer very little control, combined with increasing demands, can place the employee at risk for substance use as the alcohol or drugs may be the employee’s form of coping with the demands and stress of the work environment. Therefore employers should be aware of possible stressful situations and should emphasize work/life balance with employees.

What to do?

It is important to note that not all employees working in high risk occupations will go on to develop an addiction. Instead, it is likely that a combination of several causes, including construction-workerindividual factors such as genetics, social, cultural, and mental health issues, places an employee at greater risk for developing a substance use problem. In order to minimize this risk, it helps if employers are aware of the common signs of substance abuse and receive adequate training in how to approach an employee that might need help.

It is also important to establish clear organizational policies about substance use in the workplace. Employees need to have clear expectations about workplace rules and repercussions that would follow should an employee choose to break those rules. Employers should also be aware of how the work environment or job features may lead to maladaptive coping or other unwanted behaviours such as drinking alcohol or using drugs. This knowledge could shape the workplace culture such that employees feel empowered to approach a supervisor when concerned or taking some time to rest and recover when feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

So pay attention to the signs.  Try to minimize stress, isolation and fatigue. Work on creating a culture where health and self-care are more important than drinking and using.

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