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Occupations Associated with Substance Abuse

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) compiles data regarding substance abuse according to industry. A report on the data (collected from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from 2008 through 2012) was published in 2015. The NSDUH gives insight into the use of alcohol and illicit drugs. Heavy alcohol use is defined in the survey as consuming 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion on 5 or more days within the past 30-day period. This page will provide an overview of the trends in substance use according to industry.

The 2008-2012 NSDUHs included questions to assess how many respondents met criteria for substance abuse or dependence. Questions were based on diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). However, in the report, they combined substance dependence and abuse into one category, referred to as “substance use disorder”.

The data used in the report was from full-time workers aged 18 to 64. The data showed that:

  • An average of 8.7% of full-time workers used alcohol heavily in the month prior to the survey.
  • An average of 8.6% of the workers across all occupations used illicit drugs in the previous month.
  • An average of 9.5% met the criteria for a substance use disorder within the year previous to the completion of the survey.

For purposes of this article, the top 5 industries for past-month heavy alcohol use, past-month illicit drug use, and past-year substance use disorder will be presented. The figures represent the percent of surveyed individuals within an industry that engaged in the particular behavior or met criteria for a substance use disorder.

Past-Month Alcohol Use

According to the surveys, the industries with the highest rates of past-month heavy alcohol use were:

  • Mining: 17.5%
  • Construction: 16.5%
  • Accommodations and food service industry: 11.8%
  • Art, entertainment, and recreational fields: 11.5%
  • Utilities industry: 10.3%

The 5 industries with the lowest levels of past-month heavy alcohol use were:

  • Healthcare and social assistance: 4.4%
  • Educational services: 4.7%
  • Public administration: 6.6%
  • Finance and insurance: 7.4%
  • Professional, scientific, and technical services: 7.7%.

Past-Month Illicit Drug Use

The industries with the highest levels of illicit drug use in the month prior to the survey were:

  • Accommodations and food service: 19.1%
  • Arts, entertainment, and recreation: 13.7%
  • Management: 12.1%
  • Information: 11.7%
  • Construction: 11.6%

The 5 industries with the lowest rates of illicit drug use in the month prior to taking the survey were:

  • Public administration: 4.3%
  • Educational services: 4.8%
  • Mining: 5%
  • Healthcare and social assistance: 5.5%
  • Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting: 5.7%

Rates of Substance Use Disorder by Industry

According to the data, the industries with the highest rates of past-year substance use disorder were:

  • Accommodations and food service: 16.9%
  • Construction: 14.3%
  • Arts, entertainment, and recreation: 12.9%
  • Mining: 11.8%
  • Utilities: 11.5%

Those with the lowest rates of past-year substance use disorder included:

  • Educational services: 5.5%
  • Healthcare and social assistance: 5.7%
  • Public administration: 7.2%
  • Professional, scientific, and technical services: 8.8%
  • Transportation and warehousing: 9.1%

What Does It All Mean?

Data regarding percentages of workers in specific types of industries with substance use or substance abuse issues can be very interesting and informative; however, there are numerous caveats that should be taken into account before making assumptions or drawing conclusions from the data.

First, many have probably heard the phrase, “Correlation does not imply causation.” The type of data presented in this report or any research that investigates the degree that one variable, such as occupation, ethnicity, or geographical location, is associated with another variable, such as substance abuse, is correlational research. Correlational research can enable predictions based on the pattern, but these predictions must be done with care. These studies can also provide useful information that can be used to develop experimental hypotheses used to investigate what is in fact causing or contributing to the correlation.

Still, this type of data only looks at relationships or associations. It cannot identify all of or isolate any of the influences that can account for the relationships observed in this data. Therefore, researchers cannot make any claims regarding what causes the relationship, let alone make the claim that being in the mining industry causes a higher percent of those workers to heavily drink alcohol than workers in any other industry.

There are numerous other influences that could contribute to the relationships observed in these studies. One cannot assert, based on this data, that working in a particular industry causes a specific pattern of substance use or causes the development of a substance use disorder. However, if this data was replicated across different studies, it may suggest that members of certain groups have an increased risk of abusing alcohol, using illicit drugs, and/or having a substance use disorder. Again, however, this does not imply causation.

The fact that several of the same industries (e.g., the accommodations and food industry, the mining industry, and the construction industry) were among those with the highest percentages for more than one of the measures suggests that there may be factors associated with these industries that contribute to the increased risk for problems with substance use.

Potential factors might include:

  • Stressful working conditions.
  • Long hours.
  • Irregular shifts.
  • Poor management.
  • Dissatisfaction with one’s job.
  • Easily available alcohol and/or drugs.
  • High demand combined with low control.
  • Repetition/boredom.
  • Isolation/lack of social interaction at work.
  • Fatigue.
  • Little opportunity for career advancement.

Addressing the Problem

Because issues with substance use may decrease worker productivity and negatively impact the workplace in other ways, it is in an organization’s own self-interest to offer resources for individuals with substance use problems. Some organizations offer employees the opportunity to participate in counseling for issues with stress, mental illness, and substance misuse.

Many organizations now offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which are voluntary programs through workplaces that offer free assessments, transient counseling, referrals for further treatment, and follow-up services for employees who have work-related problems or personal issues. These programs can be used to assist employees with various difficulties, including family issues, stress, grief, mental health disorders, and substance abuse.

Counselors in EAP programs may also work with managers and supervisors to help attend to organizational and individual needs and problems.

The law, specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), provides some protections for employees who have a history of addiction but are not currently using illegal drugs. The ADA insists that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals. For example, reasonable accommodations for an individual in recovery from drug addiction (who is not currently using any illegal drugs) may include an altered work schedule to enable the individual to attend 12-step meetings or a leave of absence to attend treatment.

Conclusions

Prevalence rates of heavy alcohol use, illicit drug use, and substance use disorders are not consistent across different industries. The mining, construction, and accommodations and food service industries are a few of the fields that were among the highest percentages for more than one of the measures. However, it is important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. Simply being employed in a specific industry does not cause a person to use or abuse any kind of substance or to develop a substance use disorder.

Based on the data presented above, one could anticipate that a person working in an industry category that is in the top tier for rates of heavy alcohol use, illicit drug use, or substance use disorders might observe some of the possible workplace ramifications of substance use issues. Such ramifications may include:

  • Absenteeism and/or illness.
  • Decreased production.
  • Impacts on the individual that hinder his/her ability to work safely or to make safe decisions.
  • Impaired job performance.
  • Diminished concentration and attention.
  • Illegal activities occurring at work.

In addition, there might be some level of peer pressure for employees to use drugs or alcohol in industries where a high percentage of workers have heavy alcohol use, illicit drug use, or a substance use disorder.

Employers, especially those in high-risk industries, should consider offering assistance for their employees who struggle with substance use. These employers may implement prevention programs, screen employees for issues with substance use, and/or provide treatment-related resources to their workers.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). The CBHSQ Report.

Last Updated on August 21, 2019
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Sophie Stein, MSN
Sophie Stein, MSN, received her master's of science in nursing from Vanderbilt University and has previously worked as an advanced practice registered nurse at an outpatient psychiatric practice.
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