Prescription drugs are a workplace epidemic

It's hard to read the news these days without bumping into headlines about the opioid and prescription drug epidemic. Let's face it, most of know someone (possibly ourselves) who struggles with a prescription drug addiction. The majority of Americans take at least one prescription medication, and according to Occupational Health & Safetymore people die each year from prescription drugs than illegal drugs or car accidents. Let that sink in.

More people die each year from prescription drugs than car accidents.

The prescription drug problem doesn't limit itself to the home. Whether you work in a corporate office, home office, or drive your office around all day, 80 percent of workplaces have been impacted by people misusing prescriptions on the job.

We’ve uncovered three of the most commonly abused prescription drugs in the workplace, addressed why they’re dangerous, and what can be done to avoid addiction, whether you’re on or off meds.

1. Opioids. 

Opioids are prescribed to alleviate short-term chronic pain. OxyContin and Percocet are two popular prescriptions that mask your pain with the feeling of euphoria. However, for many Americans, what starts off as a back problem can quickly transform into a drug problem.

Take former sales rep Michele Zumwalt, who recently told NPR that she started taking painkillers for severe headaches. Before long, she was addicted and spent the next twenty years wrestling with that addiction. Michele describes giving presentations while high on opioids, and nobody noticed. Her case is far from unusual:

  • Since 1999, the amount of prescribed opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, without a corresponding change in the amount of pain that Americans report.
  • Deaths from prescription opioids have also quadrupled since 1999. 
  • A quarter of all prescription costs in workers compensation are for opioid painkillers.
  • Close to two-thirds of employers believe prescription painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet cause more problems in the workplace than illegal drugs.

Don’t get addicted: Prescription painkillers can cause people in the workplace to lose their focus and react less quickly, dangerous side effects in many professions. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of addiction: if you’re experiencing pain, go see a doctor before it gets unbearable. It’s not necessary to avoid painkillers at all costs (most people who take painkillers don’t get addicted), but initial avoidance of painkillers can lead to a stronger prescription and higher likelihood of dependence later. 

Signs of trouble and what to do: It’s a good sign if you take only your prescribed dosage and that works for you. However, if you start to take more than your dosage, run out before it’s time for a refill, or seek multiple doctors to have an extra stash on hand, these are signs of misuse. If you’ve been following your prescription as directed and it’s time for a refill, think about how successful the drug has been for you and whether you actually need to continue medicating. Describe the pain’s intensity and sensations – you may find that it’s no longer indicative of further treatment, especially if you're able to sleep without medication.

2. Stimulants. 

The New York Times called stimulants “productivity in a pill” because that’s how many workers today see them. It’s a reason why the use of ADHD medication in adults 26 to 34 almost doubled in 2012. Wow! Many fake symptoms because taking the likes of Adderall and Ritalin has been shown to increase concentration and boost confidence, keys to getting ahead at the office. More on stimulant use:

If you feel you need to take a stimulant to keep up at work, think about whether your current position is really right for you.
  • It’s traceable. Quest Diagnostics stated that in pre-hire tests, the highest group of positive tests were for central nervous system stimulants like Adderall.
  • They take a toll. Over time, stimulants can cause aggression, paranoia, convulsions, and emotional numbing. According to Addiction Center, nearly 360,000 people received treatment for stimulant addiction in 2012.

Don’t get addicted. Stick with coffee. It’s proven to increase alertness. If you feel you need to take a stimulant to keep up at work, think about whether your current position is really right for you. If so, take steps to ensure your workload is fair. Say no to new projects until you’re caught up, or meet with your boss or client about extending deadlines.

3. Antidepressants. 

The majority of Americans who suffer from depression are in the nation’s workforce. It’s all part of a nasty cycle: workplace stress can contribute to depression, and symptoms of depression can increase levels of workplace stress. Job loss, the fear of job loss, and bullying at work have also been linked to the use of antidepressants.

But antidepressants like Xanax and Valium are often misused. People take them for a calming feeling comparable to the buzz from alcohol. For that end goal, you’re better off going to happy hour instead:

  • Doctors today are prescribing antidepressants to treat conditions they aren’t approved for.
  • Taking antidepressants mixed with other depressants can cause fatal cocktail. 
  • Antidepressants don’t work for everyone, and side effects can include hallucinations, shaking, lack of emotion, sexual dysfunction, and increased risk of suicide.

Don’t get addicted. When you’ve got the blues, talk about it and seek help. Many people who suffer from depression go through pains to hide it, but that can only exacerbate the issue. Talking about the issue openly can help relieve anxiety and provide a much-needed outlet. If you’re feeling overburdened at work, think of taking some time off. We recently covered the case for taking a mental health day when you need one – read our link and consider calling in – it’s better for you and your work life.

title image by Sharyn Morrow