Rates of drug addiction/abuse across occupations in the U.S.

Coping with substance abuse and dependence is a big enough challenge on its own, but balancing both an addiction and a career can pose an even bigger struggle. The impact of drug abuse on workplaces is astronomical, costing the United States $120 billion in lost productivity in 20071. Alcohol abuse is similarly widespread, with 15% of American workers reporting being impaired by alcohol while at work at least once during the previous year2. And the effect on safety can be potentially catastrophic: Employees involved in accidents were more than four times as likely to test positive for opiates3.

So what are the patterns of substance use across America’s industries? We’ve examined 2010–2011 national survey data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to see which fields showed the highest levels of substance abuse and which substances their workers were most likely to be dependent on.

Occupations with the highest rate of drug/alcohol abuse and dependence:

Workers in food preparation and service positions top the charts, with 18.6% abusing or dependent on substances. We also compared their rate of abuse for the various substances to the average rate for each substance across all occupations. For the case of food preparation and service positions, stimulants were the "most characteristic substance" because workers of this occupation abused stimulants at a rate that was the highest number of standard deviations (z-score) above average rates of abuse/dependence for any other substance. Given their low wages and frequent need to take second or third jobs to make ends meet, it comes as no surprise that stimulants are the drug that’s most disproportionately used4. Construction workers place second on the list at 17.4%, with heroin as their most disproportionately used substance. Their widespread abuse of a powerful opiate may reflect the prevalence of chronic back pain and untreated injuries in the field5.

The U.S. armed forces take last place, with the lowest level of substance dependence out of any field – a mere 4.6%. Many deployed troops are under general orders that prohibit the consumption of controlled substances and even alcohol6. Of those who do struggle with addiction, heroin is the substance most disproportionately abused – and it’s widely available in conflict zones such as Afghanistan7.

Top 10 Occupations per Substance:

Using the same method, we then charted which occupations show the most disproportionate usage of a given substance compared to all occupations’ average rate of abuse of that substance. The bigger the number, the higher they are above the average. As you can see, stimulants are far from the only substance disproportionately abused by food preparation and service workers. Out of the 10 classes of substances studied, this industry places first in six of them, including marijuana, cocaine, painkillers, and tranquilizers, and these substances are often used at levels of one or two standard deviations greater than the runner-up industries. Furthermore, studies show that heavy drinking is very common among young restaurant workers, and workplace culture and easy access to alcohol may contribute to this8.

Construction workers also place second in five of 10 substance categories: alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, painkillers, and hallucinogens. Drug abuse is known to be widespread in the U.S. construction industry9, and studies suggest that the high level of substance abuse could be related to the work culture of the field10.

Days of work missed by those abusing or dependent on a substance:

Sedative abuse and dependence is linked to the most missed work days by far; it’s associated with twice as many missed days as the runner-up, inhalants. Sedative dependence can be a factor in accidents such as car crashes, potentially leading to missed work11, and over a year, sedative abusers could ultimately miss more than 100 days of work. Notably, the group with the fewest missed days of work per month were those with no substance abuse or dependence issues. The impact of addiction on work attendance appears to be purely negative.


Our study analyzed the combined results of the 2010–2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This was the most recent data set that provided detailed information on the jobs of respondents as well as missed days of work. Freeform responses were given for industry and occupation, which were then manually coded by the National Processing Center of the U.S. Census Bureau into standard classification systems: the 2002 North American Industry Classification System and the 2000 Standard Occupational Classification system12. Datasets obtained by the public query system were grouped by SAMHSA into 32 broad classes of occupations. As the dataset restricted the use of queries with too few results, our analysis of individual substances and the occupational fields most likely to use them included the following criteria to ensure a sufficiently large data set: Responses were included if participants stated that they abused or were dependent on alcohol; illicitly used marijuana in the past month; illicitly used cocaine, painkillers, stimulants, or tranquilizers in the past year; or illicitly used heroin, hallucinogens, psychotherapeutics, or sedatives in their lifetime. This allowed us to use the most detailed data available for each substance. Using these definitions, to compare the prevalence of the usage of specific drugs across occupational categories, z-scores were calculated for each combination of occupation and substance.

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  1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/Fact_Sheets/effects_of_drugs_on_economy_jw_5-24-11_0.pdf
  2. http://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/evaluation/topics/substance-abuse.html
  3. http://fortune.com/2011/02/03/drug-use-at-work-higher-than-we-thought/
  4. http://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/jul/25/restaurant-food-workers-afford-eat-employees-hungry
  5. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/construction-workers-struggle-with-pain-stress-from-injuries
  6. http://documents.nytimes.com/general-order-no-1-prohibited-activities-for-soldiers
  7. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/21/us/afghanistan-soldier-drug-overdoses
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2829730/
  9. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01446193.2011.631553
  10. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/booze-and-drugs-culture-rife-in-construction-industry-study-20120903-25a3h.html
  11. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04410.x/pdf
  12. http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH2011MRB/NSDUH2011MRB/NSDUHmrbDCFR2011.pdf

Getting the help you need:

Addiction to drugs or alcohol can have a damaging impact on your career and compromise your ability to work at your best, potentially leading to lost wages, disciplinary action, or even termination. There are a number of compelling reasons to seek assistance with a drug or alcohol abuse problem – diminished job performance and faltering career outlook are just a few of them. If you’re struggling in the workplace because of substance abuse, call 1 (888) 912-6768 for confidential information on treatment programs that can help you get your life back on track.

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