man stressed from work

When we feel stress during a dangerous situation, our body responds automatically by reacting to the threat and finding safety. When stress happens on a regular basis, however, our brain and body don’t always respond so efficiently. In fact, chronic stress can become a long-term health issue and has been linked to substance abuse.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that by mid-2020, there was a 13% increase of Americans starting or increasing substance use as a way of handling everyday life stress connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Warning Signs of Work Stress

Stress is a natural part of work, but when feelings of stress become overwhelming, individuals can experience bigger challenges including burnout and substance abuse. Many people turn to addictive substances as a coping mechanism during periods of ongoing stress.

Luckily, there are warning signs that can help us determine if we might be experiencing too much work-related stress.

Some signs that work stress is a problem include:

  • Feeling cynical, hyper-critical or disillusioned at work
  • Having trouble getting started or motivated to work
  • Becoming easily irritated with coworkers, customers or clients
  • Lacking the energy to be consistently productive
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Experiencing little to no satisfaction from professional achievements
  • Using drugs, alcohol or food to feel better or numb your emotions
  • Enduring unexplained headaches, stomach problems or other physical issues

Work stress can develop from many factors. Some of the most common include:

  • A lack of control over your time
  • Missing clear expectations about your role or project
  • Having too much work
  • Having too little work
  • Working in a dysfunctional workplace
  • Feeling undermined by colleagues or managers

During the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals have also experienced increased work stress due to being always “on call” or working high-pressure frontline jobs.

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

If you’re concerned that a loved one might be using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism for work stress, you can monitor some common signs and symptoms of addiction. Individuals may show some of the following signs when they are misusing illegal drugs, prescription drugs or alcohol. According to the Mayo Clinic, the major signs of substance abuse include:

  • Using drugs or alcohol on a regular basis every day
  • Struggling with strong cravings or urges for addictive substances
  • Developing tolerance, or the need to consume more substances for the desired effect
  • Being unable to stop taking a drug or drinking even if desired
  • Putting time and effort into securing drugs or alcohol
  • Financial problems related to drug or alcohol use
  • Lack of interest in personal or professional obligations
  • Engaging in risky activities under the influence (such as driving or unsafe sex)
  • Trying and failing to stop regular drug or alcohol use

Asking for Help Under the Family and Medical Leave Act

Asking for help for a substance abuse issue can be intimidating. Whether or not treatment will affect your loved one’s job should not be an additional worry. Just like recovery from a heart attack or stroke, substance abuse is a serious health condition and treatment is vital.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), individuals may take leave from a job for any treatment that is provided by a health care provider. Employees are also protected under FMLA for treatment offered by a provider of health care services referred by a doctor or other medical professional. This means that addiction treatment is protected under FMLA, as is taking a leave of absence to care for a loved one who is undergoing treatment for substance abuse. Missing work due to drug or alcohol abuse, however, is not protected under FMLA.

It is important to understand each employer’s individual policies because while the FMLA does provide protections, it does not override specific policies that an employer may have established. The U.S. Department of Labor stipulates that an “employer may not take action against the employee because the employee has exercised his or her right to take FMLA leave for substance abuse treatment. However, if the employer has an established policy…and that provides under certain circumstances an employee may be terminated for substance abuse, then pursuant to that policy the employee may be terminated regardless of whether he or she is presently taking FMLA leave.”

Make sure to consult with your loved one’s HR department when exploring their options for addiction treatment while remaining employed. You may also want to speak with a lawyer who specializes in employment law.

Finding Treatment That Works With Your Schedule

There is no one-size-fits-all substance abuse treatment. What works for one person’s recovery may not work as well for someone else. The key is to find a treatment that works for your loved one and their specific needs, including their schedule.

When selecting an addiction treatment program, it’s important to understand that there are both long-term and short-term programs, as well as both residential and outpatient programs.

Both short-term and long-term residential options provide 24-hour care but for different periods of time. A long-term facility may allow people to stay for six months to a year, while a short-term care center may have programs ranging from 30 to 90 days. Because residential care requires a complete commitment to treatment, it may not be the best fit for someone looking to continue working while getting sober.

Outpatient options provide more flexibility, allowing an individual to continue living in their home and continuing their work or school responsibilities. These types of programs offer multiple levels of treatment, including intensive day treatment similar to a residential program and more flexible evening or weekend programs. Most outpatient programs will focus on counseling, education and creating a support network. Options for outpatient programs include:

  • Partial hospitalization programs: These are the most rigorous outpatient treatment programs and typically require treatment on a regular basis during weekdays. Because they are more intense, these programs may be a shorter duration than other outpatient options.
  • Intensive outpatient programs: The second phase of outpatient treatment, intensive outpatient programs typically meet for a shorter period throughout the week but still provide stability and structure during recovery. These programs typically last longer than the partial hospitalization phase.
  • Outpatient programs: These programs are the most flexible of the three options, allowing participants to meet during evenings and weekends. They help individuals prepare for re-entry into everyday life upon the completion of treatment.

Peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are excellent additions to outpatient treatment. These groups provide ongoing support to help people in recovery maintain their sobriety. Individuals should plan to continue attending peer support groups even after they complete treatment.

Avoiding Relapse

After your loved one has completed treatment, they may still be at risk of relapse, or returning to using drugs and alcohol once again, especially if they used substances to manage stress in the past.

It is important to understand that relapse happens gradually. Treatment can help you and your loved one recognize the warning signs of relapse and provide the coping skills necessary to prevent a relapse, particularly in the early stages.

Researchers have suggested that relapse occurs in three stages: emotional, mental and physical. During the emotional phase, the person isn’t thinking directly about alcohol or drugs, but their emotions may be setting them up for a relapse. Signs of emotional relapse in a work environment include:

  • bottling up emotions you feel at work
  • isolating from co-workers
  • not going to meetings
  • going to meetings but not sharing
  • focusing on others above yourself
  • poor eating and sleeping habits

During the mental stage, the person may be struggling with their desire to use addictive substances again. Over time, their ability to resist this urge wears down as their need to escape stress increases. Signs of this stage include:

  • craving for drugs or alcohol
  • thinking about places or people associated with past substance use
  • minimizing consequences or glamorizing past use
  • bargaining
  • lying
  • looking for opportunities to use substances again

Finally, physical relapse occurs when someone actually begins drinking or using drugs again. This happens most often when the person thinks they won’t be caught. Preventing physical relapse involves practicing how your loved one will handle these types of situations in advance so they can develop healthy strategies to cope with urges in the moment.

Luckily, reputable treatment programs can help equip individuals with strategies to deal with relapse. One of the most popular methods for developing coping strategies is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). These therapeutic methods help people with substance use issues learn to change their negative thinking and develop healthier ways of dealing with stress. For example, these modifications could include learning to redefine their relationship with work stress, as well as finding ways to deal with professional setbacks in a more constructive way. Therapy can also help individuals better tolerate negative emotions and stress rather than seeking to manage these feelings through addictive substances.

As the leaders of an outpatient addiction treatment program in the Boston area, we see firsthand how work-related stress can trigger addiction. That’s why we involve each of our clients in the recovery process through personalized treatment plans that directly address the underlying causes of their addiction. While we can’t cure addiction, we can learn to more effectively manage the stress-related triggers that can worsen substance use.