Understanding problematic substance use among first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic: A survey of law enforcement, fire, and EMS workers in the United States

Int J Drug Policy. 2024 Jan:123:104261. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2023.104261. Epub 2023 Nov 25.


Background: First responders have experienced increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression due to job-related pressures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, little is known about the factors associated with first responder drug and alcohol use during this time.

Methods: We conducted a nationwide survey of first responders (n = 2801) to understand the relationship between work pressures, workplace support strategies, and problematic substance use during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We employed structural equation modeling to analyze whether burnout mediated these relationships.

Results: Descriptive statistics showed that 60.8 % reported no concerns with substance use. While general workplace support strategies were negatively associated with problematic substance use, specific COVID-related strategies, such as providing compensation during quarantine, were positively associated with problematic substance use. Burnout fully mediated relationships between workplace support strategies and problematic substance use. Finally, providing spaces at work to decompress was negatively associated with problematic substance use and burnout.

Conclusion: Although work pressures increased burnout and problematic substance use among first responders, general workplace support strategies (e.g., decompression spaces) reduced problematic substance use while some COVID-related strategies (e.g. compensation during quarantine) increased problematic substance use. Policy interventions to address problematic substance use should focus on providing spaces for first responders to decompress at work, as well as implementing strategies (e.g., access to mental health services, time off) to reduce burnout. However, organizations should be mindful that not all interventions will have their intended impact and some interventions may unintentionally contribute to negative employee outcomes.

Keywords: Burnout; COVID-19; First responders; Substance use; Work pressures; Workplace support.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Emergency Responders*
  • Humans
  • Law Enforcement
  • Pandemics
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / epidemiology
  • United States / epidemiology