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‘The use of marijuana and cocaine is worrying’: workplace anxiety blamed as number of workers using substances doubles

‘Busyness’ of the world and longer working days partly to blame, says mental health adviser

If you’ve been feeling anxious, or more anxious than usual, you’re not alone.

“Anxiety has massively intensified over the last year,” says psychologist Dr Brian Pennie. Its impact is being felt in the workplace, where the percentage of employees struggling with substance abuse linked to anxiety has doubled over the past 12 months, according to research in the recently published Laya Workplace Wellbeing Index.

In 2022, an estimated 7 per cent of employees had a substance abuse problem. Today, it’s 14 per cent and the problem is twice as prevalent in men than women.

Among those experiencing anxiety, 66 per cent of women and 53 per cent of men reported feeling lonely and isolated. Almost 70 per cent of women and over 50 per cent of men struggle to get a good night’s sleep and 27 per cent of women and 28 per cent of men have had suicidal thoughts – none of which is good news for employers who want happy, productive employees.

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Those who find it hard to sleep cite general anxiety as the main reason, followed by financial worries. The inability to switch off from work is third, which gives clout to the view that remote or hybrid working is not all good as it has blurred the lines between professional and personal time.

Laya ran an event for HR professionals to coincide with the release of its index, and Pennie, founder of Change Is Possible, was one of the speakers. Pennie’s expertise is in resilience and positive mental health, with a focus on tackling anxiety, stress and burnout, from the C-suite down. He says that generalised anxiety is widespread, and that drugs and alcohol are go-to coping mechanisms for some.

Addiction is not something that happens suddenly. The result is ‘functional addicts’ as in people who continue to work and hold down a job at quite a high rate

“The use of marijuana and cocaine is worrying,” he says. “I saw a statistic recently that put Ireland fourth in the world in terms of cocaine consumption; not overall, of course, because our population is small, but among those using it. It tends to be younger people because they are image conscious and alcohol has calories whereas cocaine doesn’t, so they can still ‘look good’ on social media, forgetting that it will catch up with them eventually.”

Results from the 2023 Healthy Ireland Survey show that the most popular illegal drugs within the State last year were cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy/MDMA, magic mushrooms and ketamine.

Alcohol consumption has fallen overall (down 5 per cent) but almost a quarter of those who drink are considered binge drinkers because they consume six or more standard drinks in a sitting. Those dealing with substance abuse also say there has been a steady rise in people presenting with dual addictions.

Data from the survey’s Mental Health Index (MHI-5) which measures negative mental health, shows that the average MHI-5 score is 78.2. This is an improvement on the 2021 figure of 76.0, but below the 2016 score of 81.2. The 15-24 age cohort have the lowest MHI-5 scores at 74.3.

Another statistic that will be of interest to employers is the jump in the number of people with a long-term health condition – up from 29 per cent in 2021 to 40 per cent in 2023. The most common condition is high blood pressure which, when taken with the other findings, suggests that organisational culture as well as employee assistance and wellness programmes have a role to play in tackling some of these underlying problems.

Pennie puts spiking anxiety levels down to people being overwhelmed by the “busyness” of the world at the moment. He attributes this partly to the after-effects of Covid, but also to the longer days associated with hybrid working.

“On top of this we have a housing crisis, a cost-of-living crisis and the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. People are upset at a very visceral level by what’s happening in Gaza, especially to children,” he says.

“The issue here is that if a glass of wine helps someone to feel less anxious, they will turn to it again and again because behaviour that’s rewarded tends to be repeated. One glass becomes, two, becomes three and so on.

“That’s how addiction starts,” adds Pennie. “It’s not something that happens suddenly. The result is ‘functional addicts’ as in people who continue to work and hold down a job at quite a high rate. The statistic for the US, for example, is that 70 per cent of individuals with substance abuse maintain employment. So, functional addiction is very much alive and kicking in the workplace.”

He believes emotional regulation is the key to tackling and managing addiction and coping with the vicissitudes of work and life. “At its core addiction is about psychological and emotional discomfort caused by factors such as disconnection, trauma, anxiety and depression. Drugs are used to escape the pain,” says Pennie, who was addicted to heroin for 15 years before he turned his life around.

“Emotional regulation is about learning to handle anxiety and stress to avoid becoming overwhelmed. I’m not saying it completely gets rid of anxiety; it doesn’t and I still feel anxious at times, but the difference now is that I have a toolbox of strategies that help me manage my emotions. And the aim of my work is to help others master their mental, emotional and external worlds too. There is no magic wand here – it’s about tactics to ease the pressure and reduce the stressors as best you can.”