A tenth of the workforce consider using prescription drugs in response to work strain

by | Jul 26, 2021 | Health & Wellbeing | 0 comments

A recent study of more than 2,000 British workers revealed that 41 percent know someone at work who uses prescription medication on a regular basis and 40 percent would be likely to take prescription drugs if they became ill and were unable to switch off from their job.

Seven percent of respondents said they had taken or considered taking prescription medication in response to occupational stress in the last year, while 7 percent reported regularly taking it for anxiety and 8 percent were regulars users for pain relief. This equates to 1.6 million people – or one in ten of Britain’s workforce.

Let that sink in for a minute. 1 in ten of Britain’s workforce.

The research also revealed a surprising lack of understanding among many workers about the health risks involved in drug abuse and the side effects including the taking of prescription drugs recreationally, as well as the potential financial cost to their employer if they are injured or even die due to being unfit for work because of prolonged workplace stress. Yes this of course is taking things to the extreme but underlines the need for organisations and employees to adopt a supportive culture around understanding health problems that require over-the-counter or prescription drugs and a proper understanding of the side effects of these medications and the health conditions.

Half (51 percent) said they believed that prescription medication was ‘completely safe’ or ‘very safe’. In contrast, 44 percent correctly identified that mixing alcohol and prescription medication could pose serious health risks. However, despite this awareness, 31 percent admitted regularly mixing drink with prescription medication at least occasionally in response to occupational stress. Additionally 1 in 10 (10%) believed it did not matter if they took prescription medications before going to work and one in six (16%) did not know if their employer would be liable for any injury they sustained at work by being unfit for work because of prescription medication.

This lack of awareness could have implications for businesses and the workplace and again highlights the need for organisations to engage with occupational healthcare professionals in developing programmes relating to the use of over-the-counter or prescription drugs and ensuring that employees are fit for work and understanding of the impact to wellbeing and health as well as understanding more about the potential side effects of the use.

More than one in three workers (35 percent) wrongly believe that occupational health experts advise employers to ensure employees complete a self-certification form confirming they are fit to continue working if they return from sick leave using prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines including diazepam, diamorphine and Valium.

In fact occupational health professionals recommend that people taking these types of medicines should make their doctors aware of their role and on return advise their employer using a medication advice form which is often left out when completing self-certification forms.

The government’s Institute for Employment Studies has questioned whether this omission might result in occupational health staff underestimating the scale of prescription drug use.

Many Organisations advise occupational health experts to ensure employers have appropriate policies in place – this is especially important when it comes to non-medical staff being able to self-certify that they are fit to work. Yet many organisations policies have a tendency to focus on drugs of abuse such as amphetamines, cannabis or other illicit psychoactive drugs that are linked with substance misuse and do not holistically consider those that may be medicine in nature, yet subject to abuse such as codeine based medicines, opiods, or other over-the-counter or prescription drugs.

Proactive approaches to managing workplace stresses

Maybe its time for organisations to stop reacting and treating the issue post event and taking a proactive stance to reduce the need for these types of self or prescribed medications by beginning to address some of the causes of workplace stresses at work.

“With occupational health referrals skyrocketing and mental health illnesses in the workplace now costing UK businesses billions of pounds every year, it’s time to accept that stress at work is everyone’s problem,” said Dr Norman Williams “Employers need to look after their workers’ physical, psychological and financial wellbeing.”

Despite the well reported evidence bases around workplace health and wellbeing programmes and the benefits to employee health around this, a proportion (15%) of respondents of a recent survey believed their employer was more interested in developing their skills than improving occupational health and safety.  A third said they did not know how to access occupational health services, with only 14% having made use of them in the last three years. However, 72% wanted their occupational health services to be more proactive in identifying occupational problems.

What this suggests is that organisations that do utilise occupational healthcare professionals need to do more;

  • More communication about how to access services and providing reassurances that this can be confidential or even anonymous
  • A partnership approach to proactively develop and implement a meaningful programme on employee health and wellbeing. Providing support to understand health conditions, a way to educate employee first aiders on the risks of certain medications and the importance of being aware in the event of emergencies, I am thinking here of medicines like warfarin – where they are designed to prevent blood from clotting.
  • A real health and safety led approach to drugs and alcohol in the workplace and I mean more than tokenistic testing programmes based on the legality of a substance but a programme linked into healthcare, one that educates and raises awareness of over-the-counter and prescription drugs as well as the illegal substances, the side effects, how drug interactions can be problematic, the need for following of correct dosing, the possible treatment options available that the company provide support with, and ultimately the dangers of illicit substance use.
  • Training for managers to understand how they can support employees that advise them of use or health conditions, how to access healthcare providers for support, and  ensure appropriate follow ups with individuals as necessary.

Dr Williams went on to say that “Our survey shows that the majority of workers value occupational health services and want these to be available when they need them,” said Dr Williams. “Employers can help by giving staff with occupational health issues a full support package, including occupational health rehabilitation.”

There is a strong link between work stress and workplace relationships (37% of a recent survey said they were stressed and frustrated due to people at work). These types of findings underline the importance of workplace culture. A growing body of evidence points towards the positive business benefits associated with actively promoting a positive working environment through workplace engagement programmes, assertiveness training for executives and improved conflict resolution strategies.

Dealing with workplace conflict for instance can effectively improve occupational health. In a Swedish study of over 11,000 workers, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health last year, researchers from Lund University and Malmö University Hospital found that occupational stress was reduced by 70% among participants who had received training to resolve conflicts at work on a voluntary basis. The benefits were greater when both men and women participated together in the sessions.

Questions we are often asked at Simply-People

  1. What sort of over-the-counter or prescription drugs do people use?

The most common ones used are beta blockers, benzodiazepines, nsaids like ibuprofen, opiate or codeine based painkillers, or paracetamol, which is a painkiller that can also reduce fevers caused by colds, flu or other illnesses.

2. What sort of work causes stress?

You won’t find a simple answer for this one, as it depends on the person. Stress at work can be caused by any number of reasons.

The most common ones are: –

  • If you don’t get along with your supervisor and/or coworkers, or have a hostile working environment in general (for example if you feel underpaid for the amount of work you do). –
  • If there is too much pressure to reach targets that are set.
  • Too much overtime without proper compensation given (for example no pay rises to compensate them financially) –
  • A lack of promotion opportunities beyond a certain level which means they’ll never get off the bottom rung and out of the rat-race –
  • Poor working hours (for example excessive travelling time). –
  • Unsustainable workloads they can never get out from under. –
  • Too much responsibility given to them at a young age without adequate training, which means that they’re “out of their depth” and feeling unable to do the job properly. Sometimes this comes after they’ve been promoted on false pretences, only for their boss to then leave them holding the baby. They were probably doing just well enough not to be noticed as incompetent before, but now that people are looking hard at what they’re actually delivering, it’s become clear that they’re in over their head with no chance of escaping this nightmare situation.


3. What sort of things are prescribed to fix occupational stress problems?

There’s no clear cut answer as to what the correct treatment for occupational stress should be, as it depends on the person. For example if they’re depressed they might not need any extra medications beyond antidepressants (or in some cases just antidepressants), but if their anxiety problem is severe enough, then a combination of SSRIs and beta blockers might be needed. Some people have physical symptoms of distress because of occupational stresses that can be treated with painkillers or anti-inflammatory medication (for example ibuprofen or aspirin However, in our experience, occupational stress health problems are not usually caused by physical illness. They’re more likely to be the result of stress and anxiety that has been allowed to develop unchecked over a period of time, which can lead to depression if it’s untreated. So occupational stress related health problems may require psychological treatment (not just medication) to resolve them.

4. Why is occupational stress a concern?

Unhealthy occupational stress isn’t just a problem for the person suffering from it. It can also have an impact on other people in the workplace, and even affect their performance or ability to efficiently do their job if they’re feeling stressed about someone else’s occupational health problems. This has been demonstrated in research – for example experimenters at Harvard University found that when male factory workers were exposed to cortisol (a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to occupational stresses), their co-workers’ productivity was reduced by 15%. Their own productivity was also decreased, so this interfered with everyone’s ability to get out of work as quickly as possible!

In another test done on men and women working in a nursing home, the performance of these carers was tested again after occupational stress related problems were introduced. The results showed that when carers experienced occupational stress they suffered from mental “task interference” which reduced their efficiency by 25%, but this didn’t happen to patients who weren’t experiencing occupational stress. In that same study you can see how greater levels of occupational stress led to more job dissatisfaction, which surely can’t be good for productivity. So its safe to say that these problems are bad for everyone involved – the people who have them (because they suffer psychological distress), and all other people in the workplace who now have to deal with both their poor performance and their increased occupational stresses because of it!

5. How could occupational stress health problems be avoided?

When occupational stress is caused by something that can be controlled by the organisation then it’s reasonable to say they should make sure their employees aren’t exposed to occupational stresses. This means being aware of occupational stresses and employees knowing how to personally recognise when they’re suffering from them so that they can do something about it, such as requesting time off while they recover, or ensuring they adopt a healthy work life balance.

However, not all occupational stress is caused by organisational issues. As I mentioned earlier in this article , an individual’s personality traits and their ability to cope with occupational stresses are also what determines how healthy (or unhealthy) their occupational health will be. For example, if someone has difficulty coping with deadlines and workplace demands (a common occupational stressor in many careers) then they may develop occupational stress as a result. In this case, occupational health problems can be improved by getting psychological treatment for anxiety or depression which will help them adapt to changing circumstances at work, while improving the ability to cope with occupational stresses.

6. So what other occupational health problems are there?

The definition of occupational health is a lot broader than you might expect – it’s not just limited to physical workplace hazards like noise or vibration . Occupational health can also include safety risks from chemicals used in your workplace , other people infecting you with their bodily fluids via occupational contact, even stress itself! So occupational health covers a huge range of occupational concerns that all relate back to how healthy your work environment is. This occupational health definition also recognises that not just how your workplace affects you, but how it can affect everyone around you as well – this is because the occupational stresses of one worker often end up affecting he or she co-workers too. This broader occupational health definition makes occupational stress a more relevant problem, since occupational stress can occur in any type of workplace and its effects are felt throughout the entire workforce!

7. What are the occupational stress effects?

Occupational stresses cause occupational health problems by:

  • Increased risk of burnout : Burnout is a very broad term that covers several different conditions in which an individual feels “exhausted” from their job . Some common signs of burnout include physical fatigue, cynicism towards your work, feeling detached from the workplace, an unwillingness to help others at work , irritability and increased workplace conflict . So you’ll understand I’m not just talking about people literally being burned out until they have nothing to give anymore! Occupational health problems and occupational stresses are often related to each other in that occupational stresses can cause occupational health problems by causing you to burnout OR occupational stresses can be a sign of your risk for burning out . Sometimes the occupational stress effects may not be obvious or immediate, but they can accumulate over time (such as job insecurity ) until you reach a point where occupational health problems develop.
  • Increased physical strain : Physical occupational strains occur when one type of workplace hazard has direct physical consequences on another part of your body. For example, repeated bending over at work would increase your chances of developing back problems , while exposure to loud noise could lead to hearing damage and ringing ears . If you’re feeling too much pain or discomfort from occupational stresses then it’s likely the occupational health risks are getting serious, and you should take action!
  • Increased risk of occupational illnesses : Some occupational stresses such as extreme heat or cold can cause sickness and injury from exposure to weather – especially if it’s an occupational hazard your body isn’t normally prepared for. There are also occupational stresses that increase your chances of developing certain occupational diseases including things like cancer, respiratory problems , hepatitis B , HIV/AIDS .


8. Who is at occupational risk?

Anybody who works in an occupation that has occupational stress effects is at occupational risk – but there are some people who may be more vulnerable than others. Those with less qualifications or experience , a low level of self-esteem, little seniority/confidence within their workplace , certain personality traits (like neuroticism ) or those working stressful jobs like nursing are occupational stress occupational health risks.









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