Work Stress and Drinking: A Vicious Cycle?

People from all walks of life drink to cope with stress from work. While the rate of alcohol abuse varies by industry and occupation, no workplace is immune. In the short term, drinking can result in feelings of relaxation, but ongoing reliance on alcohol to manage stress often leads to physical and psychological problems.

Prevalence of Binge Drinking

According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 26.4 percent of people ages 18 and older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month, and 6.7 percent reported heavy alcohol use in the past month. Binge drinking is defined as having 5 or more drinks within 2 hours for men, and 4 or more drinks within 2 hours for women. Heavy alcohol use is defined as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month, or 60 days a year.

Binge drinking has been on the rise over the past twelve years, particularly in women ages 30 to 44. While most excessive drinkers don’t meet the clinical criteria for alcohol dependence, binge or heavy drinking can still take a toll on workplace productivity, health, and relationships.

A Paradoxical Effect

Using alcohol to relieve stress and anxiety can have a paradoxical effect. Drinking may provide temporary feelings of relaxation, but habitual use alters the balance of chemicals in the brain that regulate mood. Alcohol can contribute to and worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, and it can interfere with sleep. It becomes a vicious cycle: the person drinks in response to stress, feels worse later on, and turns to alcohol again to avoid dealing with painful feelings instead of learning healthy coping skills.

Drinking to self-medicate can also have serious health consequences. Heavy drinking is linked to higher risk of developing an alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction, characterized by tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, strong cravings and an inability to cut down on drinking. Other medical conditions associated with excessive drinking include heart and liver disease, stroke, high blood pressure and cancer. Long-term alcohol use can also cause neurological problems such as cognitive deficits and dementia.

Impact on Employers

Most people who drink excessively or have an alcohol use disorder are employed, and many try to hide the problem. Nevertheless, U.S. companies lose billions of dollars a year due to lost productivity, workplace accidents and injuries, absenteeism, and illness related to employees’ alcohol and drug use.1

An Employee Assistance Program is a valuable resource for employers. EAPs are designed to address work-related stress, substance use, mental health issues and other problems that negatively impact employees’ well-being and job performance. Besides offering confidential counseling and referral services for employees, EAPs can provide a range of health promotion activities and help for supervisors dealing with troubled employees.

1”National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance.” National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance, https://www.ndwa.org/drug-free-workplace/industry-statistics/.

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