Link Found Between Long Work Hours and Alcohol Use: Result of Burnout’s False Cure?

Alcohol drinks

A recent study published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) discovered an association between “risky” drinking behaviors (defined as more than 14 drinks per week for women and more than 21 drinks per week for men) and working over 48 hours per week.

According to this meta-analysis of published and unpublished data on over 430,000 participants across 14 countries, “risky” drinking is 13% more likely to occur in employees who work more than 48 hours per week compared to those who work 35-40 hours per week.

While many of us are not surprised by these findings, scholarly journals such as the BMJ present scientific research to conclusively prove the existence of assumed correlations between events and outcomes.  In other words, statistical proof supports what has been anecdotally observed.

There are two issues arising from the BMJ report:  (1) the ideal number of work hours per week for effective performance and (2) the correlation between work hours above this ideal number and the increased use of alcohol as a stress reliever.

To many of us in the U.S., a 35-40 hour work week is often considered to be insufficient to meet the high demands and workloads associated with our jobs – particularly for salaried exempt workers who are not eligible for overtime under FLSA.  In sharp contrast, the European Union Working Time Directive for 2014 now requires all EU countries to limit workers’ hours to an average of 48 hours per week, including overtime.

Secondly, as in many studies, alcohol use is generally self-reported.  The question, of course, is how many people use alcohol as a coping mechanism and don’t acknowledge it?

I have been commenting for several years about the perceived increased use of alcohol by stressed out, overworked, and burned out workers.  In my own research on burnout during organizational change, women were much more likely than men to talk about their use of alcohol as an attempt to deal with burnout.  Based on follow-up research, I discovered that much of the alcohol use was under-estimated by participants – their actual alcohol consumption was generally much higher.  Using alcohol to cope with stress is a “false cure.”

The “False Cures” of Burnout

When Freudian psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger identified the burnout phenomenon in his patients in the 1970s, he also warned of the use of “false cures” to ward off the effects of burnout.  In addition to increased alcohol use, burned out individuals also reported increased use of prescription and nonprescription drugs, smoking, sexual activity, over- or under-eating, and workaholism.

These activities are considered to be “false cures” because they aren’t effective in either avoiding or overcoming burnout.  In fact, these false cures may actually increase the severity of burnout symptoms.

Burnout’s false cures have been correlated with a wide variety of negative health consequences, including coronary heart disease and cancer.  Increased alcohol consumption, in particular, has been linked to liver disease as well as mental disorders.

Although the BMJ study did not specifically look at increased alcohol use in relation to workplace burnout, I see a logical connection between “risky” drinking behavior and burnout resulting from longer work hours, larger workloads, and higher levels of stress in the workplace.   Therefore, could the BMJ study’s correlation between risky alcohol consumption and longer work hours also provide substantial evidence of an increase in workplace burnout?

Puleo’s Pointers:  Swapping Proactive Methods for the False Cures of Burnout

Unfortunately, the excessive use of alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress appears to be gaining acceptance in many workplaces – particularly those that espouse a “work hard, play hard” culture.  But the short- and long-range effects can create devastating consequences for not only the individual worker, but also the company has a whole.

My B-DOC Model provides insights as to how people have emerged from burnout without succumbing to its false cures.  These methods can provide some alternatives to using alcohol as a way to not only combat the debilitating feelings of burnout, but also move forward in a more healthy way.

Since everyone is different, your particular strategy to recover from burnout might include one or more of these options.  Unlike the more reactive and ineffective “false cures” identified by Freudenberger, each of the nine methods in the B-DOC Model represents an effective, proactive technique for recovery.

BDOC - Recovery

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to

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