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It’s long been known that there is a strong connection between job stress and substance abuse disorder (SAD). It’s been part of the common fabric of modern life for decades. Yet, few people know what job stress really is; they understand that certain aspects of some careers can be difficult for people to deal with, but they don’t know why a job can drive one worker to drink and drugs, while the worker right next to them goes home happy and plays with the kids.

The fact that one person’s stressful job is just a job to the other guy is the major clue that answers the question, “What is job stress, really?”

Job stress, sometimes called workplace psychosocial risk factors, is an internal event. The worker’s experience is the job stress. I know that may sound simplistic, but the basic truth opens the door to handling any worker’s perceived stress, and, along with it, the treacherous daily trips to the local bar or drug pusher. Let’s say it again, but more technically as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration puts it,

“The severity of the effects on a worker of perceived job stress is proportional to the degree that the job cuts across, interrupts, or nullifies that worker’s goals and expectations from life. There is no balance between the demands of work, family, and personal life—a sure precursor to workplace stress.”

The severity of the stress is also proportional to the lack of life experience, education, and specialized training that could otherwise be brought to bear to deal with the stressors presented by the job.

 

What factors contribute to job stress? What jobs are more stressful?

Certainly, any occupation offers the potential for more stress than another. Countless papers have been published listing the most stressful and least stressful jobs. Jobs can be rated as more or less stressful by their inherent qualities, the demands that might reasonably be considered potentially stressful—not for everyone, but for a substantial number of “normal” candidates.

A recent article in Forbes discussed “The 10 most stressful jobs for 2016.” It drew on data provided by CareerCast, a careers website, which has created a list of 11 major job stressors with which to rate any occupation.

The 11 potential stressors of any job include travel, growth potential, deadlines, working in the public eye, competitiveness, physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.), environmental conditions, hazards encountered, own life at risk, life of another at risk, and meeting the public. Based on their criteria, CareerCast came up with a list of what they claim are the 10 most stressful jobs. They are (#1 is most stressful):

1. Enlisted military
2. Firefighter
3. Airline pilots
4. Police officers
5. Event coordinators
6. Public Relations Executive
7. Senior Corporate Executive
8. Broadcaster
9. Newspaper Reporter
10. Taxi Driver

“For example, ‘deadlines’ was one demand measured. Journalists, who often face daily deadlines, received the maximum of 9 points in this category. In contrast, biologists, who seldom face deadlines, received no points.”

Stress and its effects are only as bad as a worker is ill-equipped to deal with the stressors. More and better attention should be directed to assisting stressed-out workers, along with any attention to modifying job requirements.

 

How does work-related stress lead to substance abuse?

All workplace SAD isn’t due to stress, of course. Other factors, like genetics or a family history of addiction, environmental and peer pressures, or mental health and emotional problems are often at play in dependence and addiction—independent of job stress.

Negative stress of any kind, however, including job stress, has been linked to the reward system associated with psychomotor stimulants, such as cocaine and amphetamine. According to a study at Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center, one explanation for the strong connection between stress-related disorders (including PTSD) and substance abuse disorder

“is the self-medication hypothesis, which suggests that a dually diagnosed person often uses the abused substance to cope with tension associated with life stressors or to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression resulting from a traumatic event.”

Well, of course, we already know that, don’t we? Stressed-out workers can turn to alcohol and drugs to soothe their psychic pain. That’s an “everyone knows”, for sure.

But how bad does it get? Estimates suggest substance abuse among individuals with PTSD may be as high as 60–80%—and keep in mind that many, if not all job-stressed employees, qualify as suffering from at least mild PTSD. And among substance abusers in general, between 40% and 60% have PTSD. Those sobering statistics are not so well known. And they’re reflected in America’s workplace.

An ongoing Canadian study by the national newspaper The Globe and Mail canvassed over 6,000 people about their job satisfaction, coping skills, and drug use. In association with Howatt HR, a national consulting firm, the survey found that people commonly turn to food, alcohol, drugs, or gambling “as a way to boost their spirits.” On the flip side, people who report that they have “high coping skills” report low levels of drug, alcohol, and gambling activities. Similar studies and surveys both here and abroad over many years have found similar results. Workplace stress coupled with poor coping skills is an invitation to substance use and abuse.

 

What can we do to alleviate the problems?

Any discussion of workplace stress and substance abuse needs to fully illuminate the true causes and effects. On one hand, there may be job requirements that are unreasonably risky or distasteful that can be modified to reduce potential stress. On the other, employees in such a job who fall prey to stress and subsequent SAD can almost always be salvaged with modern and effective medical detoxification and rehabilitation. This is where an up-to-date, aware, and well-functioning Employee Assistance Program (EAP) really comes into its own. The EAP shepherds the employee through rehab, helps identify, and smooth out problems at home including kids and relationships and works with the employer and employee to deal with all the workplace stressors connected to the situation.

If the job can’t be modified, and the rehabilitated worker can’t be trained to cope with the job as it is, the employee can often be successfully reassigned. And take note that workers whose employers have gone to all this trouble on their behalf become more loyal and more productive.

We should add that a few employers, human resources personnel, and co-workers here and there still regard workplace substance use disorder and addiction as a genetic weakness or human failing. It is my hope that these facts will help dispel those myths and replace them with an understanding of modern, medically valid, and supervised recovery methods that help employees everywhere get their lives back—balanced and productive lives.


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