No one would argue nurses have an extremely challenging job – the high levels of work-related stress they face combined with daily exposure to sickness, death and trauma… No wonder one published study showed 22% of nurses (more than 1 in 5) were found to demonstrate symptoms of PTSD. It’s also no wonder the stress and strain of their jobs could lead many nurses to use and abuse prescription drugs to help them cope or for what they deem to be self-medication.
Indeed, research has shown there’s a link between workplace access to drugs and substance abuse, such that nurses are more likely to use or abuse drugs when their access to such is increased.
Obviously, this presents a wide-ranging problem, given the potentially harmful, even deadly effects that can come about, both for the nurse and her/his patients.
For those working in the healthcare field, it would be good to review the signs, symptoms and behaviors that indicate a nurse may be abusing or addicted to prescription drugs:
- Memory lapses
- Difficulty following through on work assignments
- Decreased productivity
- Sleeping on the job
- Negligence in patient care
- Frequent bathroom trips
- Unexcused tardiness or absences from work
- Forging prescriptions
- Mood swings
- Hand tremors
- Bloodshot eyes
- Runny nose
- Complaints of physical pain
- Untidy appearance
- Panic attacks
The fact is, the field of nursing is more rife with substance abuse than one might imagine. According to more than one study, approximately 10% of nurses has an alcohol or drug abuse problem. Associated with the greater accessibility to drugs where nurses work and their job-related stress is that nurses have been found to abuse prescription medications, with especially high rates of opioid use.
Some caution and added attention should be given to observation of indicators a nurse is possibly stealing or diverting prescription medications. These indicators include:
- Volunteering for overtime (especially at times when there is minimal oversight by colleagues or management, e.g., holidays, weekends and overnight shifts)
- Coming to work on days off
- Missing or broken vials
- Medication and charting errors
- Discrepancies in narcotic and/or patient records
- Failure to document wastage
- Paying extra attention to patients receiving opioids
- Assigned patients frequently report a lack of pain relief
- Altered verbal or telephone medication orders
- Volunteering to count narcotics
- Volunteering to administer narcotics to patients
- Signing out more narcotics than co-workers
Recognizing the potential problem of substance abuse in a nurse can help stave off the damaging effects and snowballing consequences. Substance abuse among nurses has far-reaching negative consequences. An addicted nurse can ruin their own sense of health and well-being, they can jeopardize patient safety because of impaired judgment, slower reaction time, patient neglect, and increased mistakes and errors.
In light of these findings, it’s essential to: a) seek help for your substance use disorder if you’re a nurse struggling with such; b) be proactive and talk directly with any nurse you suspect has a substance use disorder; and c) expand the provision of supportive treatment services for substance use disorders to nurses in every state.
Addiction treatment centers specializing in assisting addicted nurses offer professional, confidential help with recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, as well as a new way of life and the possibility of continuing work in the field of nursing.
 Mealer, M., Burnham, E.L., Goode, C.J., Rothbaum, B., & Moss, M. (2009). The prevalence and impact of post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout syndrome in nurses. Depression and Anxiety, 26(12), 1118-1126
 Trinkoff, A.M., Zhou, Q., Storr, C.L., Soeken, K.L. (2000). Workplace Access, Negative Proscriptions, Job Strain, and Substance Use in Registered Nurses. Nursing Research, 49(2), 83-90.
 Baldisseri, M.R. (2013). Impaired healthcare professional. Critical Care Medicine, 35(2 Suppl), S106-S116; Dunn, D. (2005). Substance abuse among nurses: Defining the issue. AORN Journal, 82(4), 573-596.
 Substance abuse among nurses–defining the issue – PubMed (nih.gov); Kunyk, D. (2015). Substance use disorders among registered nurses: prevalence, risks and perceptions in a disciplinary jurisdiction. Journal of Nursing Management, 22(1), 54–64.
 Dunn, D. (2005). Substance abuse among nurses: Defining the issue. AORN Journal, 82(4), 573-596.