Caring for others can be a demanding occupation, taking a toll on your physical and mental health. Health care employees face a higher risk of injuries, illness, and burnout than workers in many other occupations. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health notes that they also have a higher rate of addiction, depression, anxiety disorders and suicide.1
Treating physicians, nurses, medical technicians, emergency personnel and other members of the health care industry for substance abuse requires a specialized approach to care. Private rehab programs help these clients find healthy outlets for the stress, anger and emotional pain that come from caregiving.
Stress and Addiction in Health Care
In the health care field, stress comes from many different directions, often at the same time. Health care workers have a tremendous responsibility to their patients as well as a legal liability if anything goes wrong. In addition to the legal and professional ramifications of health care, many members of this profession have a strong sense of personal accountability. These external and internal pressures can eventually add up to extreme tension and anxiety. Other factors that contribute to stress in this profession include the following:
- Long, irregular hours
- Shift work
- Low staff-to-patient ratios
- Unrealistic time constraints
- Inadequate financial resources
- The exposure to disease and hazardous materials
- The risk of physical injury
- The risk of violence from patients or family members
- The threat of malpractice lawsuits
- The need to comply with complex insurance policies
Unfortunately, stress is often perceived as a necessary risk in the health care field and working through physical deprivation is seen as a badge of honor. Physicians, surgeons and dentists must often fight physical and emotional burnout. A survey of over 3,000 healthcare professionals reported that 69% feel stressed in their jobs—17% reported they were highly stressed.2
Because of this stressful lifestyle, health care workers are especially vulnerable to prescription drug addiction. Nurses and doctors have easy access to opioid pain medications, anti-anxiety drugs, and sedatives. It’s not difficult to falsify prescriptions or to divert narcotics when you’re in a position of administering these drugs to others. One study has shown that in any given year 100,000 medical professionals are misusing drugs. However, because many medical personnel hide their abuse out of a fear of losing their licenses and their jobs, it’s hard to estimate the true extent of the problem.3
Recognizing the Signs of Addiction
With their extensive knowledge of the signs and symptoms of drug use, health care workers may be highly skilled at hiding their problems. Although narcotic medications are meticulously tracked using electronic systems or written records, it’s possible to divert these drugs by counting them as wasted (dropping a pill on the floor or accidentally overfilling a syringe) or by failing to give them to a patient.
As chemical dependence turns into addiction, it becomes more difficult to conceal substance abuse from others. Denial is strong in the medical field. Doctors and nurses often assume that because they’ve been trained in pharmacology, they understand the risks and limitations of their drug use.
How can you recognize the symptoms of addiction in yourself or someone you care about? Here are a few of the telltale signs of drug or alcohol abuse in health care employees:
- Working longer hours or taking on extra shifts in order to have easier access to drugs or pay for a habit
- Asking to borrow money, even if the employee in question earns a good income
- Spending a lot of time in the bathroom or the medication room
- Wearing long-sleeved clothing or dark glasses at inappropriate times
- A noticeable change in job performance (an increase in medication errors or mistakes in charting)
- Failure to show up for appointments or professional meetings
- Frequently calling in sick to work or failing to report at all
- Erratic behavior or mood swings—appearing depressed and lethargic one day, then highly alert and energetic the next
- An increased number of complaints from patients, staff or family members
Employees in the medical field may notice signs of addiction but feel reluctant to report themselves or their colleagues. The fear of repercussions often perpetuates abuse and addiction, but speaking up those you care about could save their lives as well as their patients.
Challenges to Recovery
If you’re trapped in a cycle of addiction, it may seem that there’s no way out. Maybe you started taking narcotics for legitimate pain or to help you fall asleep due to inconsistent work hours. Maybe you’re afraid of the legal or professional fallout of reporting yourself or a colleague. Talking confidentially with an addiction treatment specialist is a good place to start.
The sooner you seek help for substance abuse, the greater your chances of recovering without serious damage to your health or career. Employee assistance programs (EAPs) for health care workers give addicted workers a second chance and are becoming more readily available, particularly in bigger medical systems. If you work for a smaller organization, you can locate an EAP provider through your insurance company, a professional association, a rehabilitation center or a hospital in your area. An EAP can provide referrals and support services to rehab facilities that suit your personal needs.
One of the greatest challenges to recovery is finding a way to balance your work with your private life.
Family plans or even sleep is often interrupted by a medical emergency or staffing shortage. If you’re dedicated to your role as a caregiver, it can be extremely hard to put your own needs first. Intensive stress management training should be part of a health care worker’s recovery program. In stress management classes, you’ll learn lifesaving skills such as the following:
- How to recognize the warning signs of stress in yourself or a loved one
- How to deal with your substance abuse triggers
- How to prioritize self-care, so that you aren’t neglecting your physical or emotional health
- How to ask others for help and support, both at home and work
- How to relax in healthy ways, such as exercise, meditation, massage or creative therapy
As a caregiver, you are a resource to others. Protecting this resource requires making your own health a top priority in your life. If substance abuse is threatening your well-being, it’s imperative to get help, not only for your own sake but also for the sake of the people who depend on you.
The addiction treatment field now acknowledges the need for specialized recovery plans for health care workers. This group has a strong need for holistic therapeutic services that can help them restore balance to their hectic lives. When you’re searching for a treatment center, look for a facility that provides resources like the following:
- A confidential, supportive atmosphere
- Psychiatric evaluation for co-occurring mental health disorders
- Intensive personal counseling
- Group-oriented therapy with your professional peers
- Stress reduction classes
- Relapse prevention courses
- Medication management
- Family counseling
- Comprehensive aftercare support services
Many rehabilitation facilities offer individualized plans for individuals in this demanding profession. Many doctors and nurses who are struggling with substance abuse have undiagnosed or untreated psychiatric disorders, like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or an anxiety disorder. These conditions can be addressed through an integrated rehabilitation program that respects your need for professional discretion.
How We Help
Located in Atlanta, Georgia, we offer a comfortable, supportive setting for your recovery. Whether you’re looking for a partial hospitalization program or a flexible outpatient program, we’re here to help you create an optimal plan for your recovery. If you are seeking rehab for a loved one, we can offer intervention services to assist you in helping that person heal. Please call our confidential, toll-free helpline at 678-251-3189 for information and support.
1 “Exposure to Stress.” Department for Health and Human Services. July 2008. Accessed 14 November 2017.
2 “Health care workers may be the nation’s most stressed employees.” Advisory.com. 13 February 2014. Accessed 14 November 2017.
3 Eisler, Peter, “Doctors, medical staff on drugs put patients at risk.” USA Today. 15 April 2014. Accessed 14 November 2017.