(Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyAugust 11, 2023

On the job: three people on using drugs at work

(Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Using drugs at work is usually well against workplace policy due to their ability to impair judgement and impact safety. Here, three New Zealanders who have used drugs at work for various reasons speak to Sam Te Kani about their experiences.

Over the last few years, Aotearoa has made some significant advances in our attitude, and legislation surrounding drug use. Slight increases in the accessibility of medicinal cannabis and the legalisation of drug checking are among these advances, which are helping to keep people safer despite the still recreationally illegal drug market.

Still, public misconceptions about the spectrum of drug use prevail, arguably peaking where substance use overlaps with the various performance pressures of the workplace. 

From a random sample of candid users, Jerome* says: “Drugs have always been a part of my life and therefore a part of the workplace. I was once giving away water cooler trials as a 17-year-old, cold-calling businesses, and a guy in the office put half a trip and half a pill in my mouth at lunch time, and then later tried to get me to pay him.” He remembers the following high being a “pretty annoying” way to spend a Monday night.

“More recently I will smoke weed at work because I DJ as well, and… if you’re not in a good mood, [DJing] can be a rough one. So an eighth or tenth of a tab of acid has been life changing for that, helping me see the absurdity of performance. I find it really useful for dragging me out of my own insecurities.”

(Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller/The Spinoff)

It’s maybe easier to conceive of somebody finding themselves using drugs when their work environment pivots on the availability of certain substances – for a DJ, drugs are to some extent the milieu (though of course they don’t have to be). Speaking to other respondents, many of the stories I heard had more mundane roots – often starting with workers seeking a pharmaceutical solution to burnout, especially in a job that demands alertness. 

This is what happened to Janice*, who worked in the health sector for a number of years. Needing to get through extended graveyard shifts, where the vertigo of their performance was frequently a matter of life and death, they eventually found themselves in need of a stimulant somewhat stronger than caffeine.

“I couldn’t say my own experience was the direct result of work stress, but it certainly fuelled it, a thousand percent. I had grown up around addiction in my family, but work was a huge factor – I was a person who worked and worked and took it home with me. It was a crux.”

When work pressures eventually reached a boiling point, Janice found herself using drugs to deal with the day-to-day struggles. 

“I started to take “uppers” [also known as stimulants] to get by, to get through. Now, my work is nowhere near as stressful, and I’m completely sober. Nursing as a whole runs at a thousand miles per minute, every shift is relentlessly busy no matter where you are or what kind of nursing you do.”

Beyond turning to drugs to cushion various work stressors, Jeffrey* discusses the see-saw of self-managing health issues, and the legislative catch-up which still needs to happen to properly instantiate attentive and nuanced support. 

“I’ve worked in 12 different industries now and drug use in the workplace is prevalent in most of them. My preference is cannabis – basically I use to maintain pain levels for a spinal issue– and I’m a registered medicinal patient now which means I can use when required to for health reasons, which takes that pressure of the illegality off.”

Jeffrey also says “in some of the more high stress jobs I’ve had I’ve been inclined to use a bit more. At a certain stage there’s almost an expected culture where you’re offered A-class and bits and pieces to help you to relax, or to give you that energy boost. [In some companies] it can even feel like a sort of initiation.”

Let’s talk about drugs (Image: Tina Tiller)

This speaks to hierarchical discrepancies both in which drugs are used and how they’re perceived. As both Jeffrey and Jerome experienced, certain drugs were attached to different working worlds that they moved through, with quality and quantity changing along lines of income and status. 

Given those sometimes different expectations, some drug-using professionals have found themselves able to skirt suspicion even as their use became problematic. “I was taking prescription pain pills – tramadol – in excess for the better part of three years,” says Janice. “When it finally came to light what I was doing, it was because I overdosed and had a seizure and was in hospital for a few days, which was my rock bottom. I later had a superior who told me I’d be surprised how often this kind of thing happens.”

Supplementing the stresses of nursing is a far cry from executives having a cocaine lunch, but Janice’s drug use didn’t come without severe punishment.

“After stepping down and almost completely losing the career I’d built”, says Janice, “I was advised not to tick those online application boxes pertaining to drug use, as I’d almost definitely not get an interview. It’s the stigma. I mean I’ve lost people in my life who didn’t want to know me”.

Despite certain drugs being legally available, there is still a heavy stigma over their use – especially in the workplace. “I’m a prescribed patient, so they can’t legally stop me from using, but I also can’t be impaired at work,” says Jeffrey. “I can’t go back to the office looking and smelling like I’ve medicated, so it’s a fine line. I have to sit down with management this year and make sure their policies are respecting the legality of somebody’s use of actual medication.”

(Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

These stories are not intended as a state-of-the-nation-type snapshot, but they do point to a dissonance between policy and the ways in which fairly ordinary people live their lives. Not everyone who uses drugs does so to get “high”. For many, using is a way to get through another day in a stressful environment, find the confidence to face a crowd, or deal with physical pain. 

Despite their difference at an individual level, what’s obvious through Janice, Jeffrey and Jerome’s stories is that drug use is prevalent in many workplaces and for many reasons – and that realistically this isn’t likely to change. The question then becomes one of mitigation: knowing that this is how some proportion of New Zealanders are going to live their lives, how can we best minimise the harmful effects of this use? Is the best approach to continue applying resources to testing and (often punitive) workplace policy, or is it time to take stock of the real, contemporary situation and to start designing strategies to fit?

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Harm reduction tips for using drugs around work: 

  • Don’t operate machinery if you’re impaired, including driving.
  • Consider other mental health techniques to reduce stress – your work may have a counselling initiative set up, like EAP.
  • If you can, talk to a trusted colleague or someone who can help out when work stress is getting to you.
  • If drugs are still affecting you after a night out or big weekend, have a think about whether it’s safe to go to work. And if you do go, don’t drive.
  • Be aware that many drugs can affect how you perceive yourself and the world around you, which can make interacting with other people difficult.

The Level has more info about how different drugs can affect your ability to work and drive, plus tips on staying safer. 

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