There are strong ties between stress, mental illness and substance abuse, with each of these influencing the other to some degree.

By Rhys Evans, MD of ALCO-Safe

Web MD lists stress and environmental stress as one of the potential causes, or triggers, for mental illnesses such as low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, while also linking these illnesses – as well as paranoia – to alcohol and substance abuse.

However, while stress and mental illness can lead to substance abuse, the opposite is also true, with substance dependency causing or exacerbating existing mental illnesses and stress.

According to a paper published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly fifty percent of people who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder (SUD) and vice versa. It says that SUDs are also prevalent among people with mental disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychotic illness, borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.

Stress and anxiety can be cited as one of the biggest causes of substance abuse in the workplace.

Work stress can lead to a person consuming alcohol excessively or taking drugs to ‘escape’ their stresses. It can also result in a medical condition where medication is taken to relieve pain, such as stress headaches, and the person develops a dependency on the medication. Sooner or later, more and more of the substance, whether alcohol, drug or medication, is required which can then lead to consuming ‘harder’ substances, even during working hours.

The workplace can be an exceedingly stressful environment, with stresses varying depending on the job, environment and working hours. Some positions are highly stressful, and deadline driven which can heighten a person’s anxiety and lead them to work long hours. Working long hours over an extended period can trigger substance abuse such as using cocaine to give them a ‘boost’ to enable them to work longer hours without intense exhaustion. Other stresses arise purely from not deriving satisfaction from one’s job.

Furthermore, many people use alcohol and marijuana to “relax” when they get home from work, often on a regularly basis. The dependency slowly builds up a resistance within the person, who either consumes more and more, or moves on to more potent substances.

While stress management is not necessarily a company’s prerogative, ignoring signs of a stressful environment or increasing number of mental illnesses within a business can lead to significant problems for the business, not least of which is the effects of substance abuse on a workforce.

Substance abuse impacts the safety and general morale of the business.  It will also influence productivity as employees that have consumed alcohol and drugs are not able to perform their duties efficiently and effectively. Absenteeism is also higher and there is a link between injuries on duty which results in further ‘time off’.

Businesses also need to take into account paying compensation for any injuries sustained at the workplace, as well as the cost in repairs and lost production should equipment be damaged due to substance abuse related negligence. Theft to fund a substance habit is also commonly prevalent if these problems are not checked.

Businesses need to drive awareness, firstly around the dangers of substance abuse both at work and in people’s personal capacity, and secondly around mental health issues and managing stress.

There is a lot of prejudice around substance abuse and mental health illnesses, so most people tend to keep quiet about them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help solve the problem and often perpetuates it. In order to actively address these issues, people need to be aware of them, of their affects at work and in their personal lives, and that seeking help or treatment is not only acceptable but also encouraged.

Because of the stigma attached, businesses can make handbooks available to staff that provide information for them to read at their leisure in a discreet environment. They can also provide anonymous internal platforms for people to share their concerns and air grievances. Whether the business is able to address any of them or not, it helps gauge the happiness temperature of the environment as well as giving people an opportunity to simply offload.

Regular drug and alcohol testing should be mandatory in order to identify if an employee has a problem and counselling should be offered. Many organisations already test regularly for alcohol and substance use at the workplace, however not all of them provide support or rehabilitative assistance.

The link between substance abuse, mental illness and stress is tenable, and businesses should recognise that they need to address all three in order to curb substance abuse at the workplace and create a happier, more productive working environment.

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