There are high levels of substance use and dangerous mental health stigma among healthcare workers, according to a report released Thursday by APN, an organization that provides addiction treatment for healthcare professionals, veterans and athletes. The report revealed surprising statistics about healthcare workers’ behavior both on and off the job — including that 1 in 7 physicians admitted to consuming alcohol or controlled substances at work.
APN conducted a survey of 1,000 healthcare workers with research firm Censuswide in July. Respondents included physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, pharmacists, social workers, dieticians, physical and occupational therapists and medical technicians.
Forty percent of those respondents reported feeling anxiety or dread about going to work, and 49% said they are either at their breaking point or looking for new work because of the stress and trauma they endure on the job. To cope with these feelings, 17% said they consume alcohol or controlled substances at least once a day.
Many of the challenges the healthcare workforce faced during Covid and encounter today — from the burnout crisis to employee shortages, and from the lack of PPE diseases early on in the pandemic to increasing violence at the hands of patients today — have been documented and reported on. However, substance abuse among these workers is an issue that is not receiving the attention it deserves, according to APN CEO Noah Nordheimer.
He pointed out that the problem won’t get better until healthcare workers feel comfortable seeking help. The report found that healthcare workers are reluctant to get help for a few key reasons — being overworked and not having the time, concerns that their colleagues or family will judge them, and fear of getting their license revoked.
“The stigma and fear of losing their livelihood is what prevents them from getting help,” Nordheimer said. “What they do not realize is that the physician’s health programs in each state want to help them reach providers like APN and get them back on track. They are looking to support them, not penalize them. We must normalize treatment, normalize recovery and get them safely back to work.” physician’s health programs or physician’s behavioral health programs
The report also revealed that men feel the stigma around seeking mental health treatment more acutely — male healthcare workers are three times less likely to admit they have a problem compared to their female counterparts. A full 58% of them said they are either at their breaking point or are looking for a new job due to work-related mental health struggles, whereas a lower proportion of of female healthcare workers (45%) responded the same way.
Furthermore, the research showed that male healthcare workers are more than 5 times more likely to use their position in healthcare to obtain controlled substances and 4.5 times more likely to consume alcohol or controlled substances while at work compared with their female counterparts.
The most effective way to decrease stigma about seeking mental health treatment is to look at healthcare as inclusive of mental health, according to Nordheimer.
“The stigma persists in every demographic, not just healthcare workers,” he said. “We need a fundamental shift in our philosophy of what health is. A person who is physically healthy but mentally struggling is not ‘well.’ Healthcare providers, companies and organizations can set the tone for a shift by educating and equipping the systems and people who may be affected.”
Nordheimer also noted that the high substance use levels seen among healthcare workers is not unique to only that industry. He said teachers, firemen, executives and athletes are also not immune from mental health and substance use disorder issues.
“We are all at risk, but when it is the people that we depend on to save us when we are sick, hurt or in danger, that’s when our antennas should go up to say, ‘We have a problem here,’” Nordheimer said. “We’ve got to start taking better care of the people who care for us.”
Photo: fizkes, Getty Images