Need to belong influences adolescent workplace drug use

In the high-pressure atmosphere of the building and construction industry, adolescent workers are highly susceptible to indulging in work related drug and alcohol use.

A recent study by Flinders PhD graduate Dr Ken Pidd, from the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction (NCETA), revealed that the pressure to belong to a group - to be socially accepted by workmates - is one of the primary reasons why young workers are indulging in work-related drinking and drug taking.

The use of drugs and alcohol by adolescent workers became an issue for Dr Pidd when he was working as the project manager for the South Australian Construction Industry Drug and Alcohol program.

"When I was there, I became aware of the fact that very little research had been done into this issue - documented knowledge about the prevalence of drug use in the work place in Australia is very scarce, which meant there was very little evidence to help us gain a thorough understanding of the size and scale of the problem," he said.

In light of this, Dr Pidd decided to make this issue the basis for his PhD and was granted an NH&MRC grant to conduct his work.

The primary aim of Dr Pidd's PhD was to use psychological theory to investigate the influences and prevalence of workplace-related drug and alcohol use by adolescents, which included consumption during work hours as well as any after hours activity that was associated with the workplace.

By using psychological theory, he would then be able to devise and design intervention programs that could help users reduce their drug and alcohol intake.

Dr Pidd concentrated on two main areas of psychological theory - planned behaviour and social identity.

Initially Dr Pidd conducted a prevalence study to establish the main drugs of choice being used by adolescent workers in the South Australian building and construction industry.

He also wanted to uncover the main times when they engaged in drug use, whether or not their particular workplace had a drug policy in place and, if so, whether the knowledge of that policy led to lower levels of consumption. In order to draw an accurate picture of the levels, Dr Pidd surveyed 350 apprentices who were attending TAFE.

The study revealed that alcohol was the main drug of choice used by adolescents in the workplace, followed by marijuana. While very few apprentices admitted to consuming either drug during work place hours, 20 per cent revealed they regularly drink alcohol after work before driving home. Another 50 per cent admitted to occasional drinking after work.

"This is quite significant when one considers that many of these young lads are drinking socially before driving home, most probably while still over the legal blood alcohol limit," Dr Pidd said.

"Interestingly, the prevalence study also revealed the level of adolescent drug and alcohol use was somewhat lower in workplaces where the workers were made aware there was a drug policy was in place.

"They were more cautious of being 'caught out', but some still engaged in drug and alcohol use."

Dr Pidd then applied psychological theory to the results and discovered that social identity played "a hugely significant role in the levels of drug and alcohol consumption".

"While planned behaviour theory is used to understand many health related behaviours, social identity theory offers a more sophisticated approach to understanding how peer pressure can influence these behaviours," he said.

"Social identity operates through group membership - your circle or group of friends forms your social influence, therefore your behaviour is more likely to be guided by the 'social norms' of your group so that you have a greater sense of belonging to your group.

"Group membership is very important in the Australian workplace and adolescents have already been identified as an 'at risk' population, which means they are more susceptible to being influenced by the beliefs and behaviours of stronger members of the work place group."

Dr Pidd said that in the building and construction industry, groups are really important part of the workplace environment, and quite often adolescents are more likely to be influenced by the group's behaviour then their own individual attitudes.

Therefore if the group has a tendency to head to the pub after work for a few drinks, it is highly likely that adolescents will feel the need to follow suit.

Dr Pidd is using the results of his study to develop a series of resources and intervention programs that can be implemented by small to medium and medium to large-sized companies to help reduce the levels of alcohol and other drug use by staff.

"During the prevalence study it was revealed that in workplaces where it is known that drug and alcohol policies are in place, there was a reduction in the levels of consumption by workers," he said.

"Hopefully these programs will have a similar effect when implemented."

Dr Pidd said he would now use his work as the basis for an occasional paper he is writing for the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing.

The paper will investigate the link between alcohol use in the workplace and workplace injuries.

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