How Workplace Stress Can Lead To Addiction

Many people assume that those struggling with addiction are unemployed and homeless. This could not be farther from the truth. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 9.5% of full-time workers ages 18 to 64 were dependent on or abused illicit drugs or alcohol in the past year. The workplace can be a source of great stress, anxiety, and depression. Self-medicating can lead to the “functional addict.”

Workplace Stress And The Dangers Of Self-Medicating

Stress is a known contributor to alcoholism and drug addiction. Stress and adrenaline can lead to “burnout,” or mental and physical exhaustion. Some employees in stressful workplace environments turn to drugs and/or alcohol to cope with work-related stressors. What starts as a few drinks after work can turn into an alcohol dependency.

The same is true for drug habits. Without the worker realizing it, workplace stress can ultimately contribute to addiction through the practice of self-medicating. Self-medicating can stem from a desire to relax and forget about work, but it can also serve to enhance alertness and boost performance.

Certain illicit drugs such as cocaine can increase mental alertness, but are highly addictive. Even taking over-the-counter drugs such as painkillers for aches and pains can spiral into a full-blown addiction. Self-medicating with a stressful job as a trigger is a slippery slope that can easily lead to a substance abuse disorder in anyone.

What Does It Mean To Be A Functional Addict?

Employed individuals with addictions often become “high-functioning addicts.” High-functioning alcoholism and drug abuse refers to the practice of habitually abusing substances while still performing daily tasks as a productive individual. It is a common misconception that alcoholism is always obvious – many people abuse alcohol without allowing the addiction to interfere with daily lives.

Over time, however, the addiction can wear on the person and start to show signs to friends, family members, and even coworkers. High-functioning substance abusers may be able to maintain their careers, families, and social lives – at least at first – but substance abuse problems often worsen. Eventually, the individual’s dependency on the substance will grow out of control. Some people may even be able to manage extreme addiction cycles, such as coming home from a stressful day at work, using drugs or alcohol in excess far into the night, waking up with a hangover, and using substances in the morning and throughout the day to dull hangover symptoms.

Even a high-functioning person struggling with addiction will build tolerance and need to take more of the substance to reach the desired state. Soon, he or she will start to experience withdrawal symptoms. At this point, the individual may not be able to maintain uninterrupted daily function. He or she may start having sleeping problems, intense hangovers, or need to remain medicated throughout the day to get through a work shift. Some may hit a “rock bottom,” scenario, such as losing a job because of substance abuse. Others may simply realize it’s time to get help.

Signs Of High-Functioning Alcoholism

If you think you might have a drug or alcohol abuse problem, you’re not alone. The workers most at risk of developing a stress-related dependency are police officers, paramedics, doctors, attorneys, construction workers, miners, and food service employees. There is absolutely no shame in admitting you have a problem and seeking help before it’s too late.

Long-term drug or alcohol abuse can deteriorate cognitive function, causing problems with memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making abilities. Here are signs that can help you recognize if you or someone you know is a high-functioning addict:

  • Consuming alcohol or drugs to cope with stress, depression, or problems.
  • Drinking alcohol or taking drugs for almost every situation.
  • Consistently drinking alone (not in a social setting).
  • Drinking too much too often. The average drinking limit for women is seven drinks in a week; for men it is 14 drinks in a week. Drinking more than this increases the risk of alcoholism.
  • Increasing the amount of drugs or alcohol over time. (Building tolerance.)
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as headache, irritability, anxiety, or nausea.

Remember, a high-functioning addicted individual may drink too much, yet still excel at work and maintain good relationships. The substance abuse disorder does not have to cause problems in life to be a problem. It is easy for functional addicts to be in denial about their problems, since they often maintain a good level of success. It is important to recognize the signs of this type of addiction, and to seek professional addiction recovery.

Seek Help – Do Not Attempt To Self-Detox

If you are someone who has developed a dependency on drugs and/or alcohol because of work-related stress or pressure, help is available. An addiction does not have to control or destroy your life. With help from the right people, you can detoxify your body and brain in a healthy way, identify the source of your problem, and take steps toward long-term recovery, such as developing healthy coping mechanisms and stress management techniques.

Treatment starts with an understanding of the dangers of self-detox. Attempting to quit drugs or alcohol on your own can be deadly. Depending on your degree of tolerance and dependency, your body may not be able to handle a “cold turkey” withdrawal. This can cause organs to shut down or fail, resulting in seizures, coma, and death.

Self-detox also runs a high risk of relapse. Relapsing after a period with fewer or no substances is a recipe for overdosing, as your body may have a lower tolerance than what you’re used to. Do not let the stigma against substance abuse or a fear of what others might think risk your life. Never self-detox. Instead, seek professional addiction treatment. Treatment can be completely confidential.

The Path Toward Addiction Recovery

If workplace stress caused or contributed to your addiction, stress management can be a key to long-term recovery. Practicing effective stress management instead of harmful self-medication is an important goal to have during treatment. Reducing stress in the workplace can remove burdens like anxiety and depression that can trigger substance misuse and abuse. A few things that may help with healthy stress management include:

  • Find a work-life balance. Feeling like work is taking over your life can spawn feelings of anger and depression. Take time to do things you enjoy that are not work-related, such as taking a walk or reading a book.
  • Learn time management. Prevent becoming overwhelmed by learning how to prioritize your time. Make a list of tasks from most important to least important. Start at the top and remain realistic about what you can handle. Learn how to politely turn down extra work.
  • De-stress in healthy way. Find ways to unwind and relax after work that do not involve substances. Activities can include breathing exercises, yoga, group sports, physical activities, going to the movies, or doing other things you enjoy.

Getting sober and staying that way can help improve your mood, mental function, job performance, physical health, relationships with others, time management, and feelings of self-worth. Alcohol addiction treatment and drug addiction treatment with help from a professional rehabilitation center can give you hope for the future. You have the power to turn your life around and regain control. Start today.


Elevate Addiction Services is a holistic-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation center with locations in northern California. The tranquil, peaceful, and highly private centers are the perfect places to overcome stress-related addictions and to address the root causes of substance abuse.