Reader Poll: Perscription drugs in the workplace

Nov 16 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This question stems from a conversation I was part of recently, that got me curious about how many people in the academic ranks have sought out or been encouraged to use prescription drugs for work-related anxiety/depression/burn out/etc. Are the numbers on par with population level numbers? Are they similar to percentages found in other high-stress professions? I'm sure there are studies out there, but let's see what the poll says.

There's a stigma around prescription medications that often makes people hide their use. This may be even stronger in academia, where the glee with which some people label others as those who "can't hack it" or "aren't serious enough" is sometimes frightening. This has the effect of causing those who should seek help (particularly junior people) to either not do so or feel the need to do so secretly. I'm guessing this poll will make clear that it's pretty common and worth looking into if it has the potential to improve your quality of life.

18 responses so far

  • I have to take prescription drugs daily, most likely for the rest of my life, to function in general. I went to my doctor when I was tired and anxious, thinking it was just grad school stress, and found out I had a thyroid problem. So by seeking help for burn-out, I found out I had a rather more treatable issue. Probably not the kind of prescription you were talking about, but it was a result of looking for help with work-related stress.

  • eeke says:

    I have a friend who is a contractor and routinely works inside homes of all kinds of people. He says that over the last 20-25 years or so, the amount of prescription medications he comes across inside homes has increased by an amount that is astonishing. And yes, as a contractor, you do encounter pieces of people's lives that are normally kept private. I don't think it is necessarily a function of profession or of people coping with their profession, but rather a function of medical advances that have now made treatments available for all sorts of conditions that didn't exist 20 years ago (the treatments, not the conditions..). Who isn't on a prescription of some kind?

  • anonymous says:

    Yes, I have found it necessary to take prescription drugs to function at the level required for my job (the wording from your question), but I don't blame my job (the implication that I felt when you first said " work-related anxiety/depression/burn out/etc.") My depression isn't strictly work-related and I disagree with the premise that there is something inherent in academic jobs that makes us all crazy. What happens in my job affects my life, and when bad stuff happens when I'm already depressed, it sucks more, but depression is an ongoing thing for me. It doesn't matter if this is the level of medication that I need to function as required for my job, because this is the level of medication that I need to function as required for my life--to eat and sleep properly, take care of my responsibilities to self and others. Academia is hard. My intention here is not to shame anyone who takes medication because of their career and feels that they would not need it if they were in a different job, but to state the perspective of a person who needs psychiatric meds no matter what. Maybe someday I'll be off them, but my last attempt to taper, when everything was relatively stable in my life, was unsuccessful. I've stopped wasting all my energy just trying to function at a very basic level and can now spend my energy doing great science and being a happier person.

  • rs says:

    at times I feel like that it is too much and I need something, but until now I have been managed to avoid taking anything by taking a few days easy and returning to the normal.

  • Anon says:

    I initially assumed that you were talking about "performance enhancing drugs" like adderal and other stimulants. I see these two groups of drugs differently in this context, though. When symptoms of anxiety or depression are present, I see prescriptions to treat these symptoms as important to maintain normal functioning, and hope people don't feel a stigma attached to these treatments. We are lucky to have some useful drugs in these categories and they can work very well in many people. On the other hand, I have heard rumors of students and faculty taking stimulants in order to improve performance (not talking about people who have a genuine, diagnosed need for these drugs). I understand that these work very well, too. This sort of thing worries me - it's like doping in professional sports. If enough people do it, no one will be able to compete unless they do it, too.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    My intention was not to relate it only to jobs. Indeed, depression can have nothing to do with one's work. This post and poll were... tricky to word.

  • Anne says:

    I haven't wanted/sought/used any prescription drugs, but in grad school my advisor did suggest seeking antidepressants to more than one of my labmates. I don't think any of them did, though one of them definitely needed some sort of mental health help.

  • becca says:

    Yep, though I first needed pharmaceutical treatment in undergrad, so not simply "job" stress.
    One of the most comforting conversations I had during grad school was with a couple of MD/PhD trainees who were coping with depression. You wouldn't have known it at all from a distance, but there were a bunch.

  • Susan says:

    I initially assumed you were talking about Oxycodone and the like (which is what mainstream media is almost always referring to by "prescription drugs").

    I depend on prescription pain drugs (not Oxy but similar) due to chronic pain that I am told may well persist for the rest of my lifetime. I am extremely defensive about my use of "prescription drugs", which a) is why I read your title as I did, and b) relates to your topic anyway: science definitely has a culture of grunting through the hard stuff, whether that is pain, depression, experiments not working, a bad adviser, sexism in the workplace ... yeah, that's our culture. I struggle with my own instinct to just grin & bear it daily, and of course, societal pressure around Those Bad Drugs (TM). Despite those struggles, I do note that I am much more productive (and nicer) when my pain is under control.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Are you counting "The Card"?

  • Crystaldoc says:

    Maybe I am the example you were thinking of when you wrote the post. I have relatively mild anxiety and depression that could be managed by lifestyle choices other than prescription meds, but not in my chosen line of work as an academic PI. It is not strictly caused by work, as I know there to be genetic predisposition based on family history, and non- work-related stresses like illness and death of a loved one have also been major triggering events for me, but work stress has been the most major factor over the course of my adult life. I first found the need to seek medical help while in grad school, and I know I wouldn't have made it through to the PhD without meds. I did manage to taper off and learn to use other stress management techniques throughout two pregnancies, but these were insufficient for long-term management of stress at the level I need to perform to maintain my lab and fulfill other professorly responsibilities. I would have panic attacks during class lectures and other speaking engagements, and mild depression was enough to severely reduce my writing productivity, not to mention taking all the enjoyment out of the better aspects of the job. Thank God for Prozac 🙂

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, Crystaldoc, that is the type of thing that first jumped to mind, but I wanted to leave it open to be inclusive.

  • anonymous says:

    I take Adderall (prescribed to me, of course) and absolutely no one at my university knows about it. It's probably my biggest secret.

    One of the symptoms of untreated ADHD is anxiety, and I barely made it through undergrad because of it. By my senior year, I was a basket case and had to take some time off to chill out before starting grad school. It was during this "gap" that I was diagnosed as having ADHD. As soon as I started taking Adderall, all my anxiety disappeared (plus I was able to focus and be organized for the first time in my life). My life after my diagnosis and treatment is a million times better than it was before. In fact, I couldn't have made it through grad school without the meds.

  • another anon says:

    I am a Ph.D. candidate and I've recently sought professional help to treat my issues with anxiety and depression. It took me many months - and multiple episodes of depression - to finally seek help in part because I was afraid that if I couldn't deal with it on my own it would mean I wouldn't be tough enough to make it as a research scientist. Although I have not taken prescription drugs (talk therapy has been immensely helpful on its own), and as mentioned by another commenter my conditions aren't directly related to my work, it does seem that the personality type that excels in academia is also prone to these emotional challenges. More than anything, I want to thank you for this post and all of the commenters who have directly shown me that turning to therapy, meds or otherwise, does not disqualify you from a career in research.

  • [...] to beat a dead horse, but I thought I would just take a post to point out the results of Friday's poll. For those of you scoring at home, with well over 150 responses it appears as though roughly 1 in 3 [...]

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    In my first trimester, I had to take prescription drugs to keep myself upright and my head out of toilet...I'm not sure if this counts as 'prescription drugs', ie if you were looking for only antidepressents, pain killers, etc.. But for me it counts. I couldn't continue to function in my position without that help.....

  • Just_a_WIS says:

    I think I would be thrown out of the science olympics for doping. I started taking beta blockers to take exams when I was a post-bac biology student, and still take them to give talks, and occasionally under deadlines. Just this week, I asked my doctor to prescribe for me a short acting, take as needed, anti-anxiety medication because balancing my biomed postdoc, plus grant deadlines, plus "work/life balance" responsibilities and needs is jut more than I can naturally take. And don't even get me started on how depressing I find it that I need all these pharmaceuticals just to get my job done.

  • Jules says:

    Haha, sweet. I just told our angst-ridden grad student that fretting was normal and that I bet that about 30% of the people I knew in grad school had been on antidepressants. (And I estimated another 25% would have benefitted from them.)
    Depression and anxiety are really common problems, and research exacerbates pretty much every aspect of those.

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