Stress and substance use in the workplace have a lot in common. In fact, the relationship is so closely entwined, it’s recommended that employers include a support system for stress management as a module in the alcohol and drug testing program. The connection between stress and the decision to use alcohol and drugs is under frequent medical study, but clearly both:
- Harm the body
- Impact mental functioning
- Lead to long term health problems
- Shorten a person’s lifespan
- Destroy the quality of life
- Impact work performance and safety
However, the relationship between stress and substance abuse goes deeper than just have similar characteristics. Many researchers believe that stress is the trigger for people who decide to use alcohol and drug use in the workplace. In other words, stress and substance abuse can be viewed two ways: 1) as co-morbidities in which two non-related medical conditions exist simultaneously, or 2) as dependent medical conditions in which one causes the other. It can be a two-way street also, in which stress leads to alcohol and drug abuse, and alcohol and drug abuse increases mental and physical stress.
Stress in All Workplaces
Stress and substance abuse may have a close relationship, but it’s a damaging one in most cases. Throughout 2010 and 2011the Australian news has been filled with a story of an Australian special forces soldier who was found unconscious in his room after overdosing on opiates. In an interesting twist, the commando private who is called “Private D” has been given a gallantry commendation for saving a fellow soldier’s life in 2009 during a battle with the Taliban. This is a stunning case of where a national hero could also be criminally convicted in a civilian court and serves as a glaring example of how illicit drug use can impact lives.1
It is also speculated that this is a case of a hero who may have turned to illicit drugs to cope with the stress of war. When he saving his fellow soldier, it was with a concussion and burst eardrums due to the explosion of an anti-tank mine. After he was found unconscious, he was temporarily duty restricted but has now returned to full duty. This situation led to every special forces soldier located in Afghanistan being drug tested. Illicit drugs are used by soldiers to block out unwanted feelings or memories triggered by the horrors of war.
It would be easy to write off this story as a bad example of stress and drug use because combat situations are subject to unusually high stress levels. Stress doesn’t just impact soldiers though. In 2004/2005, the National Health and Safety Commission reported that over $133.9 million in benefits was paid to Australian workers due to stress related claims.2 It shouldn’t be any surprise that there is increasing use of alcohol and illicit drugs in all workplaces, with an estimated 1 out of every 20 Australian workers using alcohol or psychoactive drugs in the workplace or right before reporting to work.3
Stress, Alcohol or Drugs?
There’s plenty of discussion on what creates stress in the workplace. Things like job boredom, heavy workload, co-worker relationship problems, deadlines, discrimination, dangerous work, and job insecurity all contribute to work related stress. These external stressors of workers conditions can be compounded by internal stressors that are physically or psychologically based. A person having problems at home is already experiencing internal stress and work conditions may only add more stress.
Stress creates tangible physical and mental reactions. These reactions include:4
- Faster heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Constricted arteries
- Over-production of cytokines
- Under production of certain chemicals in the brain affecting mood like serotonin and dopamine
- Overproduction of neurotransmitter chemicals like cortisol and catecholamines
- Shut down of digestive activity
There are other conditions that produce similar symptoms like anxiety and post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) which may very well be what the Australian soldier was trying to overcome with opiates. People under stress look for ways to relieve the uncomfortable feelings, and at that point alcohol and drugs often enter the picture.
Using alcohol and drugs is a poor decision made by thousands of workers, and the decision can enhance and worsen stress symptoms. Though you can have stress and then decide to use psychoactive substances, or use psychoactive substances which produce stress, the end results are the same. Stress and substance abuse work together to damage the body physically and mentally, and that damage can lead to significant safety issues in the workplace.
Keeping mind the effects of stress, consider the typical reactions of alcohol or drug use:
- Rapid or irregular heart beat
- Rapid breathing
- Constricted blood vessels (certain drugs like cocaine)
- Vasodilation (due to alcohol)
- Higher blood pressure (drugs)
- Lower blood pressure (alcohol)
- Interference in production of chemicals like dopamine
- Interference with brain region controlling memory and coordination
- Paranoid psychosis
Two –Pronged Approach
In other words, using alcohol or drugs to relieve stress will increase the severity of stress symptoms. Employers can promote a drug free workplace by implementing two policies at the same time. First, random alcohol testing and drug testing is needed to detect substance use. Second, the employer must recognise workplace stress and institute steps to minimise its presence.
CMM Technology (http://www.cmm.com.au/) supplies high quality alcohol and drug testing equipment to support a drug free workplace. Employers can choose saliva or urine drug testing equipment, in addition to specialised alcohol testing equipment designed to fit all budgets.
- Oakes, Dan. (2011, October 21). War hero may face drug charges. Retrieved from The Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/national/war-hero-may-face-drugs-charges-20111020-1maea.html
- State Government of Victoria. (2010). Work-related stress. Retrieved from Better Health Channel: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Work-related_stress
- Pidd, K; AM Roche; and F Buisman-Pijlman. (2011). Intoxicated workers: findings from a national Australian survey. Addiction , 106 (9), 1623-33.
- UMMC. (2009). Stress – The Body’s Response. Retrieved from University of Maryland Medical Center: http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/what_biological_effects_of_acute_stress_000031_2.htm