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How Stress In the Workplace Can Lead To Addiction


Where you work, its conditions, the job role and maybe even other co-workers can have a massive impact on how stressed you can become. You can learn ways of dealing with stress but if you find yourself unable to cope it could lead to complications such as addiction to drugs, alcohol and other substances to cope with the high stress levels.  

What is stress?

Before we examine how the workplace can influence stress, its best that we explore what stress is. It’s important to realise however that stress isn’t always a ‘bad’ thing. It’s what helps us survive! Modern day life does not always place you in situations where you are fearing danger – true there are those close moments in traffic – but overall we are unlikely to be fearing for our lives on a weekly basis. Yet in the past, humans would benefit from the physical response to stress in times of  danger.

When someone is stressed they are placed into what we would call a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode – this is the result from the sudden release of a number of hormones, which include:

  • Adrenaline – a hormone secreted in the adrenal glands found within the kidney. It increases the rate of blood circulation, metabolism and breathing and prepares your muscles for exertion.
  • Cortisol – released in the adrenal glands, it has the ability to control blood sugar levels which regulates metabolism. It also has the ability to influence memory formation and control salt and water levels.
  • Norepinephrine – this hormone increases your heart rate, blood pressure and increases the availability of glucose. It also shuts down metabolic processes, thereby redirecting energy and blood flow from the digestive system to our muscles and brain.

These stress hormones have a number of symptoms:

The Third Reaction to Stress: Freeze

Unbeknownst to many, there is  a third response to stress. Seizing up or ‘freezing’ can occur when someone is overloaded with stress. This occurs when we feel terrified and lose the ability to see a way out. Imagine you are being attacked by a bear in a corner, you know you cannot fight the bear or escape, what do you do? It makes sense to disassociate yourself the situation – that way your body will not mentally, physically and emotionally feel the harrowing situation you are placed in.

You may ask, how does this benefit ourselves in survival situations? It has been observed in the wild that when a predator has caught its prey, the animal will freeze and ‘play dead’. In this time, if the predator is distracted (such as seeking out its offspring to feed them) the prey can suddenly spring to life and escape a near death situation.

What are the different types of stress?

There are two categories of stress: Chronic and Acute Stress. Both types can have different effects on your body and are useful in different situations.

Acute or Short Term Stress

This short-lived type of stress can be useful at getting you quickly out of dangerous situations, such as a traffic collision. It can also be used to help you focus on an impending task.

Symptoms of Acute Stress are:

  • Indigestion
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain (Angina)

Chronic or Long Term Stress

Chronic stress is the result of frequent exposure to situations that lead to the prolonged discharge of stress hormones. The demands of the modern day often turn into chronic stressors. Problems at work, or at home, can take a long time to solve and this can lead an individual to feel as if  the weight of each issue keeps piling onto their shoulders; overwhelming them. Issues such as bereavement over a loved one, the loss of a long-term relationship or a never-ending job hunt can leave you feeling drained on a daily basis.

The body will try to cope with these situations by releasing similar hormones released in acute stress situations; however this state of high alert takes a severe toll on our bodies.

Symptoms of Chronic Stress

  • Irritable mood swings
  • Lack of focus
  • Anxiety
  • Chest pain & rapid heartbeat
  • Sleeping issues
  • Procrastination and negligent behaviour
  • Feelings of depression
  • Sleeping issues

Chronic Stress and its effect on your immune system

Stress can also create severe complications for your immune system. Stress hormones stimulate the immune system, which is advantageous for short-term situations. However a prolonged release of stress hormones ‘overwork’ your immune system, which in the long run will damage your body’s ability to fight off harmful microorganisms. Stress can also damage your body’s ability to heal from physical injuries.

How does the workplace cause you stress?

The workplace can be fraught with situations and predicaments that can cause a person both short and long term stress. Complications such as these can cause stress:

  • High workloads – complicated tasks with unrealistic deadlines can leave you feeling overwhelmed and impotent.
  • Boring or insufficient tasks – being overqualified, as well as a lack of work can make a person feel undervalued and demoralised.
  • Lack of interpersonal relationships – this can lead you to feel isolated and without support from others.
  • Bullying and harassment – these can lead to situations can make you feel humiliated, angry and unhappy.
  • Toxic work culture – a blame culture in the workplace can make you feel penalised and alienated.
  • Ineffective management – a manager can be either over attentive or negligent, both of these situations can cause chaos to your workflow and leave you without a solid direction.
  • Mismatch in moral values – does the way your managers and business do business disagree with your own moral compass? If so, this can make you feel like you are a ‘bad person’ for aiding their efforts.
  • Debilitating working environment – physical conditions such as access to natural light, a good regulation of indoor temperature, uncomfortable seating and malfunctioning equipment can cause stress levels to skyrocket.

How can you deal with workplace-related stress?

The Health and Safety Authority Ireland (HSA) has issued information and guidelines covering workplace stress. Stress is an unpleasant emotional state, which can involve feeling agitated and fearful. It can even manifest in physical symptoms, such as insomnia, or panic attacks.

Stress often stems from personal issues such as loss, financial difficulties, or family problems. These issues can be compounded by work related difficulties, leading an individual to feel overwhelmed and powerless.

The Health & Safety Authority (HSE) Ireland, has published an online guide for how to deal with stress at work in a healthy manner. They describe stress inducing situations as ‘psychosocial hazards’ because they threaten mental health in the same way as physical hazards threaten the physical safety and health of employees.

A couple of potential sources for stress at work outlined by the HSA include a number of tight deadlines, or lack of resources to carry out the required tasks. According to the HSA, there are both negative and positive responses to stress. Negative responses could include denial, where the person refuses to think about how best to respond to the situation.

Another way of coping negatively with the situation could include  drinking more alcohol or taking drugs. This is another avoidance technique, where the person seeks relief from their feelings of stress by engaging in activities which provide short-term enjoyment, but contribute to ill health in the long term. This type of response could also involve overeating or smoking excessively.

When we encounter stress, we must learn adaptive ways of responding to it. Proactive responses could include talking the situation through with a colleague, and discussing the best way to approach a task. It could also involve letting a superior know what would reduce your stress, and asking for changes to be made. It would also help to maintain a healthy lifestyle and enjoy leisure time, in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

However stress in the workplace can eventually lead to a condition known as Burnout. This also can lead to addiction to drugs and alcohol.

What is Burnout?

People who are extremely stressed or overworked can experience burnout. This describes a state of mental or physical exhaustion up to the point of collapse. Burnout can affect anyone facing a great level of pressure at work.

If you’d like to learn more about Burnout and its effects click here.

Self-medication in the Workplace

Chronic stress leads to complications such as sleeping problems, lack of concentration and increased risk of sicknesses. Professionals may find themselves relying on prescription drugs such as sleeping pills to treat their insomnia, all the while using amphetamines and other stimulants such as cocaine & adderall to keep them awake and focused. Notwithstanding this, the increased risk of illnesses can also lead them to be treated with medications that conflict with the substances they are already taking. In an effort to self regulate, a person may be doing more harm than good in order to alleviate their numerous symptoms.

Alcohol at Work

Alcohol can sometimes be tied to workplace meetings, often when meeting clients a person may find themselves in a bar. It may also be used by professionals to relax in the evenings after work. However after prolonged usage, a person’s tolerance to alcohol raises; this leads to more copious amounts of drinking. Habitually the person may end up using alcohol to soften the harsh environment of the workplace – using it to get through the day.

This can lead to drinking at lunch, leaving work early and inventing ‘meetings’ and other instances for so that they can continue drinking. This frequent and heavy usage of alcohol can lead a person into a  full-blown alcohol addiction.

Alcohol & Drug Abuse in the Workplace: Managing the Situation Correctly

Mitigating the risks that workplace stress, burnout and eventual self-medication can cause is important not only for your job security, but also for your physical, emotional and mental well-being. If you find yourself suffering from prolonged workplace stress, burnout or drug addiction our  our expert addiction team at Smarmore Castle can provide effective treatment; as well as treating co-occurring mental health disorders like stress and anxiety.

Smarmore Castle’s discreet, countryside location within 16 acres of scenic landscape provides a highly conducive environment to addiction recovery.

More Information on getting treatment for Work Related Stress, Addiction & Burnout:

For more information about the admissions process, or treatment at Smarmore Castle alcohol and drugs rehab centre, please call our confidential phone lines:

  • From the Republic of Ireland, please call us on: 041 986 5080
  • For international enquiries, please call: +353 41 986 50 80

 You’re welcome to call our team anytime – 24-HRS A DAY

If you would like to apply direct for admission, you can do so on our APPLY FOR ADMISSION page.


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