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Drug & Alcohol Withdrawal, Addiction, Tolerance, and Dependency

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

Drug & Alcohol withdrawal, addiction, tolerance, and dependency can be a workplace problem

Dependence is a physical condition where the body has adapted to the presence of the drug, which may be illicit, prescription or legal. If the drug is stopped or reduced, then the person will have physical symptoms, called withdrawal syndrome. The drug is then taken to avoid the withdrawal symptoms.

Some drugs may cause psychological dependence, where the person may believe they need the drug to function. This can be for certain situations (eg unwind after a hard day, relax at a social situation) or it could be all the time. While not all drugs can lead to physical dependence, it is possible for any drug to lead to psychological dependence.

If you get a headache when you miss your regular coffee, then you are experiencing withdrawal because of caffeine dependence. Are you addicted? No.

Addiction and dependence are not the same, even though they are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation. Addiction is a psychological condition where there is an overwhelming compulsion to take a drug or engage in other harmful behaviours eg gambling. An addicted person will continue to prioritise the behaviour and will not be deterred even if advised by a doctor, receive a DUI or are dismissed from work. The compulsion is long-lasting and can return unexpectedly after a long period of improvement. The treatment of addictions is complex and requires medical assistance, behaviour counselling and long-term support to prevent relapse.

To manage withdrawal of prescription drugs, a doctor may taper the dose over time to prevent any serious symptoms. In other cases, another drug with a similar effect, but safer profile may be substituted, eg people de-toxing from heroin may be given methadone or buprenorphine to alleviate the withdrawal symptoms or cravings.

Tolerance is caused by the repeated exposure to some drugs. The body adapts to the drug and an increased dose is required to obtain the same effect. Sometimes people may choose a more potent way of taking the drug (eg snorting or injecting). Tolerance can be developed to both illicit and prescription drugs. Tolerance does not develop equally across the side-effects of a drug, eg users of oxycodone quickly develop tolerance to the euphoric “highs”, but not the dangerous effect of respiratory depression (slowed breathing).

Implications for the workplace

The symptoms, severity, and duration of withdrawal from drugs is varied depending on the drug. Symptoms may include anxiety, hallucinations, fatigue, sweating, vomiting, depression, seizures, and agitation. Withdrawal symptoms or intoxication by drugs or alcohol are all potential workplace risks.

Workplaces can help manage the potential risk from withdrawal in a number of ways:

· Offer the worker information on available services to aid recovery

· Offer medical and/or counselling services through EAP programs

· Ensure the worker is aware of your drug and policy and expectations regarding workplace safety

· Provide information about duties and policies that the worker can discuss with their doctor to ensure compliance while detoxing

DASA has a team of experts ready to assist workplaces manage all aspects of drug and alcohol use, including withdrawal. If you would like to know more, call 02 8001 2535 or via email to


DASA (Drug and Alcohol Solutions Australia) is proud to be leading the way in workplace drug and alcohol services throughout Australia. Whether your need is for workplace drug testing and workplace alcohol testing, advice on drug and alcohol policy or ideas on how to communicate your workplace expectations, policies and procedures to your staff, DASA can help. We have the experience, technical expertise and people to lead you to the right solution.


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