Caring for others can be a demanding occupation, taking a severe 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.
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 a dozen different directions, often all 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 unbearable tension and anxiety. >Other factors that contribute to stress in this profession include:
- Long, irregular hours
- Shift work
- Low staff-to-patient ratios
- Unrealistic time constraints
- Inadequate financial resources
- The need to learn complicated technologies
- 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
Helping others cope with illness, injury and death isn’t easy, especially when you feel pressured to maintain a neutral, professional attitude. Staffing shortages can create a need to work back-to-back shifts, resulting in sleep deprivation, fuzzy thinking and an increased risk of medical errors.
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. Stress begins as early as the first year of medical school, when physicians in training begin to understand the scope of their responsibilities. A cross-sectional study of medical students published in the Journal of Health, Population, and Nutrition found that 63 percent of students reported that they were under stress. Twenty-five percent rated their stress as “severe.”
Stress doesn’t end with medical school. Physicians, surgeons and dentists must often fight physical and emotional burnout. A survey of over 2,000 doctors published by the American Medical Association showed that 87 percent experienced stress on a regular basis, and 14 percent stated that they were already burned out. They also stated that this occupational stress translated into their personal lives, resulting in family conflicts, financial difficulties and an overall lack of work-life balance.
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. Modern Medicine reports that addiction affects about 10 percent of American nurses. However, because many medical personnel hide their addiction out of a fear of losing their licenses and their jobs, it’s hard to estimate the true extent of the problem.
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 problem. 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.
- 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 their colleagues. Doctors might fear the professional ramifications of turning in a fellow physician, especially if that physician is a friend or a partner in practice. Nurses, surgical technicians and other personnel may be afraid of being implicated in drug diversion themselves. They may also be hesitant to turn in a coworker who relies on her income to support a family.
Challenges to Recovery
If you’re trapped in a cycle of addiction, it may seem that there’s no way out. Maybe you’ve come to rely on narcotics to deal with the pain of an on-the-job injury or to help you fall asleep during the day after working all night. Maybe you’re afraid of the legal or professional repercussions 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. Many large hospitals and medical systems have dedicated EAPs on site. 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.
Many health care workers report that they have trouble sleeping at night or relaxing on their days off because of job-related anxiety. Family plans are 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:
- 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.
Private Treatment Programs
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 these:
- 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
Private rehabilitation facilities offer individualized care plans for individuals in this demanding profession. Many doctors and nurses who are struggling from 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.
Located in Memphis, Tennessee, The Oaks at La Paloma offers a comfortable, private setting for your recovery. Whether you’re looking for residential treatment or a flexible outpatient program, we’re here to help you create an optimal plan for your recovery. If you’re seeking rehab for a loved one, we offer intervention services to assist you in helping that person heal. Call our confidential, toll-free helpline for information and support.