What Are the Professions with the Highest Addiction Rates?
The professional world today is filled with far more competition and stress than it was even a few decades ago, and the industries with the most demand are privately and publicly confronting an epidemic of substance abuse among their workers and leaders. The professions with the highest addiction rates reflect the nature of round-the-clock consumerism against the backdrop of businesses that are worth billions of dollars.
Addiction in the Hospitality Industry
An example of the scope of the problem is found in the hospitality industry. In 2017, Gordon Ramsay, the world-renowned British chef and restaurateur, spoke of widespread cocaine abuse in professional kitchens. It is “the hospitality industry’s dirty little secret,” according to Ramsay, and it is more of an open secret. In “Chefs on Drugs,” the Daily Beast notes that the reality of creative, ambitious, and high-powered chefs experimenting with mind-altering chemical substances is so well-known, it has become a cliché.
The other side of that cliché is that the employees of restaurant kitchens often have to perform very physical tasks in a dangerous environment for hours on end. Many of them receive meager pay and have to endure torrents of abuse from demanding management and impatient customers. Female workers are often subject to sexual abuse. Harvard Business Review writes that a staggering 90% of female employees “experience some form of sexual harassment.”
The restaurant business is exactly the kind of melting pot that creates the conditions for a profession with a high rate of drug addiction. Even dating back to 1994, the Addiction journal wrote of how the employees of restaurants and hotels “drink more than other groups in the service industry.” In 2008, the George Washington University Medical Center reported that as many as 15% of people who work in the hospitality industry had significant problems related to alcohol consumption, with the real number being potentially much higher because some employees did not want to admit to their addiction.
Alcohol abuse has long been the cornerstone of the substance abuse problem in restaurants. Alcoholic beverages account for as much as 30% of a restaurant’s sales, so there is always a bottle or a glass on hand for a tired and stressed worker. Bartenders, who are expected to be supremely knowledgeable about hundreds of drink combinations while being immaculately professional, conducting crowd control, and, in the case of female bartenders, fending off unrelenting waves of unsolicited and aggressive interest from male patrons, “alcoholism is an on-the-job hazard,” in the words of the New York Post. One award-winning bartender had to have his stomach pumped after drinking himself into an overdose, and is now one of many high-visibility bartenders who is publicly sober.
Sobriety in the restaurant business has become something of a public cause, with some popular chefs and bartenders drawing attention to the rampant problem of high addiction rates in the business. But for millions of employees who don’t have the platform or reputation to go sober, falling back on drugs and alcohol is the only the escape they have from physically and emotionally punishing jobs. A study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that as many of 80% of male restaurant workers and 64% of female workers engaged in dangerous drinking patterns.
Wall Street and Substance Abuse
Cocaine’s popularity in restaurant kitchens explains its use in other intense and fast-paced workplaces. Addiction in stock market trading and investment banking is nothing new, but the excesses depicted in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street threw a harsh and controversial light on the practice. In 2017, The Guardian looked at the concern of “rife” cocaine use in London’s financial district, with experts and employees all agreeing that the nature of the work—brutally competitive, with unforgivingly long hours offset by lavish bonuses and the promise of promotions and power—contributes to widespread substance abuse.
One expert said that the very culture of high-stakes finance “means [employers] can’t afford to be too ethical with regards to what their staff is doing,” referring to employers turning a blind eye to the reality of their workers drinking and using drugs while on the job. Bloomberg points out that many corporations in Wall Street do big business with pharmaceutical manufacturers and are thus reluctant to take a public or private stance that will jeopardize very lucrative relationships.
When stories make the news, companies will often put out statements about their zero-tolerance policies to protect their reputation, but little is usually done to actually help stressed employees who often stay late, come into the office on weekends and holidays, take their work home with them, and work relentlessly out of a fear that any sign of weakness will cost them a promotion or their entire job.
In such driven industries, especially those dominated by men, there is often a pathological fear of showing any kind of weakness or inability to keep up with the rest of the pack. Younger employees work harder and drink harder to show their superiors that they can make it in the cutthroat world. Spending more time in the office than at home is a rite of passage, a way of paying dues. A worker who goes home at 5 p.m. on a Friday or who doesn’t come into the office on Christmas Eve is of much less value than someone who is willing to tough it out.
For reasons like these, employees in the financial sector have long used stimulants to keep working beyond human limitations—sometimes upwards of 100 hours a week—endlessly trying to impress their bosses and seal their future in the rat race. While cocaine was the drug of choice for a past generation, the legality of Adderall (prescribed primarily for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) has led to that medication becoming widely abused. Adderall has found popularity on college campuses for its use as a “study drug,” helping students stay up all night and boosting their mental acuity for finals and papers. It is little coincidence that the workers of Wall Street have the same idea.
The Rise of Opioid Abuse
Stimulants are not the only substances being abused. Rates of addiction in Wall Street have reached such levels that the New York Post calls it an “epidemic,” mirroring the national crisis of opioid abuse. A recovering trader told Bloomberg that the use of illegal drugs in the financial sector is likely to increase because of how pervasive the overall opioid problem is.
While the drugs of choice among investment bankers and stock market traders have traditionally been stimulants like cocaine, methamphetamine, or Adderall, more workers are turning to sedatives like opioids to simply get some sleep. A psychologist and addiction specialist told the Post that the psychological pressures of life in the securities industry can be so severe that legal opioids like OxyContin, and illegal ones like heroin, give employees a numbing blanket against the depression and physical pain that are sometimes manifested by the overwhelming stress.
Some receive their opioids through legitimate prescriptions, usually for injuries, and then become psychologically dependent on the medications, using the effects as a balm for their mental health struggles. Others obtain medications illegally or unethically, or simply go straight to heroin, one of the most potent opioids on the black market.
Another element that connects the professions with the highest rates of addiction is a deep desire among the people within those professions to take professional and even personal risks. To a large degree, the need to risk mental wellbeing in pursuit of professional acclaim is driven by a fear of losing control—control over career, reputation, family, and even life itself.
To better exercise control, people in the legal, financial, and hospitality fields will push themselves beyond healthy limits. For example, they may run on two or three hours of sleep, always wanting to be the first at work. For some, even the act of engaging in substance abuse is an opportunity to demonstrate control, as is the case with functional alcoholics: successful, hard-working people who drink heavily but who always appear to have their drinking under control when, in reality, they are simply deepening their reliance on alcohol until they cannot function without it.
For such people, even as the pressures of their professions pile up, the thrill of another all-nighter is the same thrill as that of getting high or drunk to get the job done, so much so that the lines become blurred. One of the biggest reasons behind the problem of substance abuse in Wall Street is that drugs and alcohol have such a ubiquitous presence there. Employees at every point of the spectrum are expected to hold their alcohol, whether it is for wining and dining clients, keeping up with coworkers and bosses, or to power through an all-night slog. The culture is such that on New Year’s Eve 2015, Business Insider published “The Definitive Guide to Drinking Like a Wall Streeter,” where “everyone knows you’ve probably been drinking.”
As with bartenders and chefs who have made news by publicly declaring their sobriety, there are professionals in the finance world who have made it a point to “go dry.” However, even they admit that by prioritizing their own health and wellbeing, they consciously exclude themselves from some of the benefits that come from partaking in that culture. The New York Times writes of how sober people in alcohol-heavy professions are thought of as untrustworthy because of their choice not to drink. Employees relate stories of not being invited to meetings or working dinners and losing out on important business. In some circles, the act of declining to drink is seen as unprofessional and embarrassing for everyone else.
Because of this stigma, workers in the financial sector tend to keep their abstinence to themselves. As a result, the rate of alcohol and substance addiction in Wall Street might never fully be known. What is known is that people have died. Some have drunk themselves to death, and others have died by suicide because the pressure and stress have been more than they could handle.
The Right to Disconnect
In the past, successful corporations might have turned a blind eye to the excesses and the human cost. In the words of one addiction specialist, “as long as [employees] are pulling the money in,” and the firm does not suffer, the cost of doing business is always worth it. However, that culture is changing, albeit slowly.
A number of companies have now established mandatory vacation days, and younger employees (the ones most likely to take risks and work unhealthily) are rewarded for not coming in to work on weekends and holidays. Following the stress-related deaths of two of its employees, Goldman Sachs forbade its interns from staying in the office after midnight. Employees require special permission to come in on weekends. Similarly, junior bankers at Barclays are required to take Saturdays off.
New York legislators are taking a page from the European “right to disconnect” laws, where employees will not be punished for not checking their work emails and text messages after business hours. Some offices have policies against consuming alcohol on site (a reversal from the days when having a keg in the office was considered the sign of a good company). Still more are offering employee assistance programs, which provide support and outreach to stressed workers and their family members. EAPs offer temporary, anonymous counseling with organizational psychologists and consultants who are trained to work with employees, management, and company culture.
Addiction in the Legal Profession
The legal field is probably one of the sectors where this problem plays out to the greatest degree, and the conditions within the legal profession are ripe for the development of an addiction. The Centers for Disease Control explains that lawyers make up the fourth most suicidal profession after dentists, pharmacists and physicians.
Much like in financial firms, lawyers are encouraged to work unnaturally long hours, often on cases that can be complex and emotionally unsettling, with no guarantee of success for a client. But even more so than in investment banking or trading, lawyers are expected to look out for themselves over their coworkers. The director of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program pointed out that “adversity is the nature of the game” in the legal profession.
The effect this has is an unimaginable amount of mental health stress on attorneys and paralegals. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely than workers in other jobs to develop depression, according to the Journal of Occupational Medicine, to the point where “the legal profession has a rate of alcoholism significantly higher than the general adult population,” in the words of the Legal Professional Assistance Conference in Canada. Data indicates that alcohol abuse constitutes 95% of addictions among lawyers and judges. Other research has found that lawyers are twice as likely to drink unhealthily than people in other professions, and a study dating back to 1996 showed that 50% of the lawyers who were facing disciplinary action confessed to using drugs and alcohol.
A characteristic that links the people who work in the professions with the highest rates of addiction is ambition, whether lawyers working on a case, stockbrokers selling securities, or chefs trying to create the next culinary sensation. While stress is a significant factor in why the people in these fields turn to addiction, Psychology Today also notes that the highest achievers in these industries are driven by a compulsion to outdo everyone else. A psychologist explained that even in the face of overwhelming work and exhausting demands on time and energy, these people thrive on the adversity. They are easily bored, and so surround themselves with commitments that they cannot humanly keep up with. Turning to drugs and alcohol to numb pain and to keep working is a “natural” part of that process.
Much like how Wall Street firms have taken steps to address addiction in their offices, law firms have also stepped up to acknowledge that the culture of overwork and drinking has created an epidemic of addiction and burnout. The American Bar Association did this in 2016; a report entitled “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” noted that 33% of every three practicing lawyers were problem drinkers. Across 19 states, ABA surveyed 12,825 legal professionals and found that 28% of them were depressed, and 19% suffered from anxiety. The report was quoted in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, which said that the criteria for problematic drinking was to do so in a way that is dangerous and harmful, and carries the potential for becoming a psychological need.
For contrast, the American College of Surgeons reported in 2012 that 15% of 7,200 surgeons surveyed by the organization “were categorized as abusing alcohol.” The New York Times writes that dangerous alcohol consumption by lawyers “was notably higher.”
Addiction in Mining and Construction
White-collar jobs tend to get the most attention when it comes to addiction rates, but a report issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration pinpointed problematic drinking among miners. Data showed that 18% of people in the mining industry drank five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting (the definition of heavy drinking) on five or more days within the previous 30 days. Construction workers came in at 17%.
Commenting on the study, the Washington Post argues that substance abuse on the job is more about the types of people who work in those jobs than it is about the nature of the jobs themselves. For instance, because men tend to drink and do drugs to greater degrees than women, and because young people drink and do drugs to greater degrees than older people, “it stands to reason that you’ll see higher rates of drinking and drug use in that industry.” Therefore, one of the reasons that the rate of substance abuse in mining is so high is that miners are often young men. However, there was an unusually high rate of heavy drinking in the construction industry, even when accounting for age and gender.
But when it came to the hospitality industry, researchers found that restaurant and hotel workers—young or old, male or female—are “the heaviest drug users in the nation.”
Drug Use in Silicon Valley
Recently, the explosion of the digital and startup sector has not only led to a revolution in personal computing and communications, it has also given birth to a nouveau riche of programmers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. In 2018, analysts predict that the tech industry will be worth $351 billion, leaving the rest of the American economy “in the dust.”
This wild success has led to many of the problems that have long existed in the corporate world. There is ferocious competition between companies always on the lookout to make the next big thing in the tech world, which has led to programmers and developers working around the clock. The same spark that drives the creativity and ambition also leads them to take undue risks with their health, which includes loading up on energy drinks, alcohol, and stimulants to push themselves to stay awake for hours on end while coding, an activity that is alternately complex and repetitive.
This has led to a phenomenon known as “Real Programmer syndrome,” an idea that programmers who are really serious about their job will work so much that the only thing they do after hours is code and program some more. Therefore, programmers who limit their work to working hours are unable to compete with their coworkers, undeserving of promotions or raises, and unworthy of being thought of as actual programmers.
This culture of overwork and paranoia has led to a rise in the rate of substance use and misuse in Silicon Valley. Because of the recency of the industry, and the fear of what publicly admitting an addiction problem will do to market competitiveness, there are no reliable estimates on how widespread the problem is. One addiction specialist said that the problem of addiction in this business is “all covered up so well.”
However, he and treatment providers in regions with large technology centers have spoken of how their clients are almost exclusively startup programmers, coders, developers, and executives, all of whom take pride in being the one to work the longest, to stay at the office the longest, to drink the hardest, and then go back to work the next day. Even though numbers are not available, the conditions of the problem and how quickly it developed suggest that the rate of addiction in the tech industry could rival or even overtake substance abuse in the finance world.
To that point, a consultant in San Diego who works in drug addiction awareness for employees in the Bay Area told The Mercury News that the combination of workaholism and an ever-present black market for drugs has led the shift from simple coffee and energy drinks to methamphetamine and cocaine, “to work on crash projects at tremendous rates of speed.” While larger companies like Cisco and Google offer anonymous counseling to workers who are feeling the strain of the unrelenting competition, a majority of corporations in Silicon Valley don’t do enough (or anything at all) to guarantee a safe working environment. The corporations “want the results, but they don’t want to know how their employees got the results.”
In time, research will be able to identify the rate of addiction in the technology industry, but the similarity of the work to the financial world suggests that the number could already be dangerously high.