Many professionals today consider stress to be part and parcel with having a job – not just a high-responsibility role like being a doctor or a lawyer or in a position of upper-management, but of having any job at all. The problem is so serious that one study found 61% of Americans suffer persistent work stress and it’s changing our biochemical makeup.

Persistent stress causes the body to release cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine, all of which can help us focus, but also switch on our arousal system – and that enhanced attention and energy isn’t always a good thing. In those with a preexisting disposition, these chemical pathways can make some individuals more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse.

Driven By Drugs

When stress turns toxic and employees begin to rely on drugs, it can impair their judgment, but it can also feel like the best way to keep up in a competitive system. Uppers can make it easier to stay awake and work long hours, at a time when 70% of employees agree overtime is a must if you want to get ahead.

In a similar vein, pain medication and alcohol can reduce the sensation of stress or make it easier to block out back pain and headaches from sitting at a desk. But at the end of the day, these supposed “gains” are all perception. Drugs and alcohol will inevitably hold individual workers back and negatively impact the entire workplace.

An Employer Responsibility

If we’re going to address our stress-driven workplace culture, employers need to step up and take responsibility for the situation they’ve created. Whether through programs emphasizing work-life balance or formal training opportunities, there are numerous different support structures that can help employees thrive.

On the preventative level, employers need to focus on fair employment expectations, including appropriate compensation, sufficient staffing, and stress reduction training for managers. Employees also report that appropriate skills training and recognition of achievements also can help reduce stress.

In order to address substance abuse head-on, though, prevention isn’t enough. Rather, employers need to recognize that they likely already have people on staff with substance abuse issues. While many people assume drug addicts are largely unemployed, 2/3 of those addicted to pain medication have jobs – and are more likely to be involved in workplace accidents and injuries. At the same time, employment is an important factor in sustained recovery from addiction, so the more support employers can provide to struggling team members, the better.

Workplace Wellness

One of the best ways for employers to address addiction head-on is by integrating stress reduction activities into workplace wellness programs. Popular outpatient treatment strategies like meditation, yoga, and art therapy are beneficial for all employees, providing them with opportunities to engage with their emotions, express themselves, and build resilience. For those in recovery, these tools can prevent a relapse, but they also serve to protect those who are standing on the edge, wavering under the weight of too much stress.

Employers also need to create a workplace environment where vulnerability isn’t a risk, and that includes making space for employees in recovery. For example, many employees struggle to return to work after undergoing inpatient because they’re worried about the stigma associated with substance abuse – they believe that their addiction will follow them back to their desks and others won’t trust them. And too often, this is the case. Unfortunately, employees can only return to their full capacity if those around them offer their trust and are patient with the process.

Workplace stress is undeniably a contributing
factor to addiction, and that means it can’t be fully separated from the
prevention and recovery process. At work, we may not think of ourselves as “our
brother’s keeper” but addiction contributes to absenteeism and lost productivity, placing more strain on
those who remain in the workplace. We owe it to ourselves and each other, then,
to take a step back and consider what really matters. If we take the time for
group yoga or choose to take a mental health day when it’s all too much, that’s
okay. Pushing harder isn’t the definition of success, but it is a recipe for
toxic stress.