Since March 2020, we have been dealing with one crisis after the next. While substance use disorders are not new, the pandemic has accelerated an already exploding crisis. In the workplace, drug and alcohol addictions are costing American businesses and organizations about $81 billion in lost profits every year!

Before the pandemic, opioid addiction and related deaths had already reached epidemic levels. Sadly, data shows that there have been significant increases in many kinds of drug use during the pandemic, and the impact has been devastating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a 28.5 percent increase in drug overdose deaths in the U.S. during the 12-month period ending in April 2021 over the previous year. Overdose deaths from synthetic drugs like fentanyl also increased during this same period.

In a 2021 survey by the New York University School of Global Public Health, 29 percent of individuals who drink alcohol increased their drinking during the pandemic. Furthermore, individuals with depression and anxiety were 64 percent and 41 percent more likely to increase drinking, respectively.

Unfortunately, mental health and substance use has worsened throughout the pandemic and will likely continue to do so for years to come. Presently, over 70 percent of U.S. adults and adolescents with a substance use disorder are employed. Organizations must be prepared to address the rise in substance use disorders and their impact on employees and businesses.

Substance use disorders are well-known to result in decreased productivity. Declines in productivity can arise in different ways. In some cases, the employee could be suffering from active use, and in other cases, the employee might be concerned about a family member struggling with substance use.

Performance and productivity regression is often associated with increased absenteeism and presenteeism. Workers with substance abuse disorders miss two or more weeks annually than their peers and average nearly five weeks of missed time.

Increases in substance use disorders can also create difficulties in hiring and retaining employees, especially in safety-sensitive organizations and industries that require drug screening. These position vacancies redirect job responsibilities onto other workers, resulting in higher employee stress and burnout and adversely impacting employee morale.

Complicating hiring and retaining employees even more for organizations is the Great Resignation. Employees whose mental health has been affected by increased workloads are leaving for jobs that promise to better their well-being.

Substance use disorders and addiction also carry increased risk and liability for organizations. Employee safety becomes a significant risk when workers are not fully present on the job. Distracted workers are more likely to be involved in a workplace accident.

Workers who show up under the influence or hungover are at greater risk of making costly errors and mistakes. One study found that 35 percent of emergency room patients who suffered an injury at work were at-risk drinkers.

Workers under the influence in safety-sensitive jobs not only put themselves and their coworkers at risk, but they also put the public at risk for injury or worse. When substance use goes unaddressed, these risks can increase workers’ compensation claims, tarnish the organizational reputation and result in lawsuits and legal expenses.

Managing a remote workforce has also proven challenging for employers (managers, leaders, human resources) to identify employees having difficulties with substance use. According to a survey conducted by Sierra Tucson, an addiction treatment center, one-quarter of respondents said they had participated in a virtual staff meeting while under the influence of a substance.

In the physical workplace, it is easier for employers to recognize the warning signs of substance use and abuse, such as employees arriving late or the appearance of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Remote work requires leaders and managers to look deeper for signs of potential substance use, such as deteriorating performance and productivity or disengagement in meetings.

Organizations are desperately seeking ways to support their employees and provide support to help with substance use disorders and addiction. Here are five ways organizations can support their employees and minimize risk and liability in the workplace from the increase in substance use disorders.


Remove the Stigma

Managing and preventing substance use disorders is challenging and requires organizations to think differently. No matter the workplace setting, removing the stigma around substance use disorders and acknowledging that people are struggling is a crucial first step.

Individuals suffering from substance use disorders and addiction should be empowered to seek help. Leaders and managers should be encouraged to take an empathetic approach when substance abuse disorders present themselves in the workplace. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of substance use disorders and understanding how to approach individuals can help remove the barriers to seeking treatment.


Promote Open Dialogue

Creating an environment that promotes an open dialogue about substance use disorders and addiction will encourage individuals to seek the support they need. Managers play a significant role in reducing stigma and promoting open dialogue around mental health and substance use. In any work environment, one-on-one time is critical for early detection. Managers can use these meetings to check in with employees to see how they are doing. These check-ins create safe spaces for transparency and allow managers to address the situation during these touchpoints effectively.

Another way to promote open dialog is to have leaders who are comfortable sharing their challenges to tell their stories to employees. Leaders are not immune to substance use disorders affecting them or family members. Sharing their experiences and triumphs can send a powerful message to those struggling and suffering in silence and motivate them to get support.


Make Resources Easily Accessible

Offering robust behavioral health benefits is an excellent start to helping employees get the support they need. Now is a great time to evaluate or optimize well-being resources. If your organization offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), that may be a good start, but consider performing some due diligence to determine if your program is truly capable of meeting the moment.

Too many EAP offerings are low-touch and priced in a way that disincentivizes the provider from helping more of your employees. Others lead with app-based approaches that are woefully inadequate to address employees with moderate and severe issues and risk levels.

Consider seeking a provider who provides a high-touch, human clinician-led approach specializing in people and culture solutions. Guide+Thrive by BHS, for example, is a concierge solution that begins with immersion in the customers’ goals, benefits and culture.  This understanding allows our Guide Care Concierge team to optimize your resources and offer employees who need help with mental health and substance use a high-quality care concierge experience, making them more likely to engage and accept support or treatment.


Reconsider Workplace Policies

While some organizations must take a hardline on substance use policies due to the nature of the work, other organizations might consider adjusting organizational substance use policies to create a “recovery-friendly” workplace.

Many individuals who want help choose not to seek treatment due to fear of losing their job, insufficient paid time off or inadequate access to short-term disability. Allowing individuals time to seek treatment and support can encourage them to complete their treatment and get back to work more efficiently. They could also help encourage others to seek support. This is a critical step in creating an environment of help-seeking.

Organizations should also consider reviewing and modifying insurance coverage by shortening the prescription length for opioids. Instead, they can offer more effective alternatives for pain management, such as more physical therapy or chiropractic visits.


Provide Training and Access to Naloxone

According to the National Safety Council, 75 percent of employers have been directly impacted by workers who take opioids, yet only 17 percent feel prepared to handle an emergency. Naloxone, also commonly known as Narcan, is a medication designed to reverse an opioid overdose rapidly. When administered, naloxone offers a temporary treatment to control anaphylactic responses until emergency personnel arrives.

In 2018, the U.S. Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, recommended that employers include naloxone in workplace first aid supplies. For organizations considering making this life-saving medication available, it is highly advised to provide appropriate education and training to employees on naloxone, much like they would for CPR. Having this medication and training could save a life.

We know that substance use disorders and addiction are not going away. If we all do our part, we can help those who are struggling while minimizing risk and liability to the organization.


Want to dig deeper? Join us on April 28 at 1 p.m. EDT for our next Symposium Series Webinar on the importance of having a sustainable mental health strategy. Register here.

Post Written by

Lakeeta Wingfield is a licensed clinical social worker and clinical manager at BHS. She has an extensive background in Health and Human Services with expertise in health, mental health, addictions and individual, group and family counseling. Lakeeta is a Pittsburgh native and earned a master’s degree from Temple University in social administration with a concentration in health and mental health. She enjoys spending time with her family, entertaining, reading, and trying new things in her free time.