The Great Recession, which officially began in December 2007, has had a devastating impact on the world’s economy. Along with the spectacular collapse of financial markets and mass layoffs, workers in many industries are plagued by job uncertainty and financial worries.
While the recession technically ended in 2009, lingering problems with unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and job uncertainty continue to affect millions of people worldwide. A 2014 opinion poll by Hart Research Associates reflects the general lack of confidence in the economic recovery, with 57 per cent of Americans reporting their belief that the recession was still underway as of March 2014.
As the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the psychological effect will likely remain with us for many years to come.
But is this economic uncertainty leading to greater alcohol use among U.S. workers? A new research study published in the Journal of Addictive Behaviors suggests that it is.
The link between the stress faced by employees during a recession and alcohol consumption tends to be difficult to determine at times. While workers facing job loss or greater workload due to employee cutbacks often drink more, loss of income can also lead to reduced spending on alcohol since it is deemed to be less important than basic needs such as food and shelter.
In the new study conducted by Michael Frone of the State University of New York at Buffalo, data from two separate studies of worker stress and substance abuse were compared to measure changes in alcohol use over the course of the Great Recession.
Frone, author of the book Alcohol and Illicit Drug Use in the Workforce and Workplace, is a senior research scientist and a well-known authority on workplace substance use and the role of employee stress in drug and alcohol problems.
The first study Frone looked at was the National Survey of Workplace Health and Safety conducted from 2002 to 2003. The second study, the National Survey of Work Stress and Health, was conducted from December 2008 to April 2011.
“Employees dealing with job insecurity, high workloads and general workplace stress may resort to alcohol as a form of self-medication to handle the emotional and psychological pressure they face.”
Both studies had more than 2,000 randomly selected participants who were residents of the United States and who were working full or part-time when they took part in the survey. All participants in both studies completed telephone surveys with questions measuring workplace stress, alcohol use, marital status, age, educational background, work hours,and occupation.
By comparing the two studies, Frone hoped to see whether workers dealing with the Great Recession were more likely to report alcohol problems than the workers in the first study which was conducted before the recession began.
Results showed no significant differences between the two studies in terms of demographic variables (age, sex, marital status, etc.). For alcohol use, however, participants in the second study reported being more likely to engage in heavy drinking to the point of being intoxicated after leaving work, though job-related drinking problems actually decreased for workers during the recession.
This suggests that workers are becoming more careful to ensure that drinking didn’t lead to job loss, but were also more likely to rely on alcohol after work as a form of “self-medication” to handle job stress.
As expected, men were more likely to report greater alcohol use than women. There also appears to be a strong interaction effect between age and drinking, with middle-aged employees being more prone to developing alcohol problems than younger employees. The age difference may be due to the greater family and financial responsibilities that middle-aged employees have, which can add to the overall workplace stress they experience.
Based on these findings, Frone suggests that many employees dealing with job insecurity, high workloads and general workplace stress may resort to alcohol as a form of self-medication to handle the emotional and psychological pressure they face. Though fear of losing their job may cause workers to be more careful not to allow alcohol use to affect their work, the Great Recession is still linked to greater alcohol use for those who are still employed.
While this kind of self-medication may be effective in helping workers deal with stress in the short-term, it still suggests that they run the risk of developing long-term health problems linked to chronic alcohol use or stress issues.
Even as more workplaces try to crack down on employee drug use with drug tests that are often counterproductive, alcohol use, especially if it doesn’t affect worker performance, tends to be ignored. As more employees turn to alcohol to deal with stress and the fear of losing their jobs, the health consequences are likely to be severe.
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