Job complexity, simplicity linked to substance use

September 20, 1999

Many people drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or marijuana to cope with the fact that their jobs are either too complex or not demanding enough in relation to their cognitive abilities, according to a new study conducted by Greg R. Oldham, Ph.D., and Benjamin I. Gordon at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"When individuals' cognitive abilities match the demands or requirements of their jobs, they use relatively small amounts of licit and illicit substances," say Oldham and Gordon. "But when a job complexity-cognitive ability mismatch occurs, individuals respond by using greater amounts of substances."

The researchers base their findings on data collected from more than 7,000 people interviewed as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Participants reported on their substance use and employment and completed a standard aptitude test. The investigators assessed the complexity of the jobs by estimating the training, skills, and abilities necessary to perform them. They report their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Among workers with lower cognitive ability, those in more complex jobs used more cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana compared with workers with less complex jobs, the researchers found. Among workers with higher cognitive ability, in contrast, the more complex their jobs, the lower their use of these substances. Interestingly, the level of cocaine use remained unrelated to cognitive ability and job complexity.

"People may use substances to soothe the frustration they experience as a result of being over- or understretched by their jobs," say the researchers. "They are just as likely to use large amounts of substances in situations where their cognitive abilities exceed the demands of their jobs as they are when they fail to meet the jobs' demands."

To reduce employee substance use, Oldham and Gordon suggest that workers' cognitive abilities should be assessed systematically. Employers can then consider reassigning them or restructuring their jobs to match their abilities.
The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a peer-reviewed quarterly publication of the American Sociological Association. For information about the journal, contact John Mirowsky, Ph.D., 614-688-8673.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For information about the Center, call Petrina Chong, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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