The Pandemic and Substance Abuse: Are Your Employees in Trouble?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a dramatic increase in substance and alcohol abuse disorders (SUD and AUD) — and many workers are still struggling with them.

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The Pandemic and Substance Abuse: Are Your Employees in Trouble?

As business leaders continue to manage the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic a new issue has emerged that’s impacting workers and employers. Substance and alcohol abuse disorders (SUD and AUD) increased dramatically during the lockdowns, and many workers are still under their influence. Previously reliable employees returning to work with a pandemic-acquired disorder may pose challenges the average employer hasn’t encountered before.

In 2021, a Harris poll revealed 23% of adults admitted to drinking more alcohol to cope with stress during the pandemic: 52% for parents of children between 5 and 7. One study found 22% admitted they stockpiled alcohol more than other food and beverage purchases during the pandemic.

Whether it was health fears, financial insecurity, the stress of coping with family and work, or the isolation and boredom of working without social interactions or a change of scenery, few workers were unscathed by the lockdowns. For those who turned to drugs or alcohol, a successful transition back to the workplace may rely on support and help from their organization.

23% of adults admitted to drinking more alcohol to cope with stress during the pandemic: 52% for parents of children between 5 and 7.

Where it increased

Data suggests women were more highly impacted by the stress caused by the pandemic than men: a Rand study found 41% of women reported an increase in heavy drinking days. Another found the psychological stress meant heavier drinking for women than men. Because women are already 2 times as likely to develop anxiety and  depression, alcohol abuse can mean a worsening of these conditions.

Alcohol access through the day pushed more workers to drink while on the clock. One study from found 1 in 3 Americans admitted to drinking on the job while working remotely. The results varied by state, with Arkansas at 8% compared to 67% in Hawaii.  Across all demographics, addiction and unhealthy behaviors increased as a result of the pandemic; recovery will hinge on getting help quickly and effectively.

The impact

The fallout of working while impaired affects employees and their companies.  Many businesses saw reduced productivity or lower quality work while remote that continued after returning onsite. Employees may have had difficulty self-motivating, focusing, or concentrating on work from home. Cognitive ability is reduced when impaired, so business likely see more errors and poor decision-making.

Employees may have experienced signs of emotional and mental issues: depression, anxiety, low energy, or lack of interest. These can manifest into sleep disturbances, and even aggressive behavior toward others. For business, the impact of substance or alcohol abuse during the pandemic may have been felt during lockdowns, but may continue long after employees return to the jobsite.

For those third of Americans who admitted to using while on the job, performance deficiencies may have been easy to spot. Workers with slurred speech during meetings or showed obvious signs of impairment may have been identified.

Others who increased their intake or abused drugs or alcohol off hours may have shown more subtle signs harder to identify. Some struggled to manage workload or relationships while hung-over. Some companies saw increased absenteeism or presenteeism in the aftermath of overindulging during the workweek.

Identifying potential problems

For businesses, recognizing all employees were under stress during the pandemic and some may have seen an increase in harmful behaviors is the first step. You’ll want to look for staff members who have not bounced back as they returned to the workplace, either full or part-time. Some return-to-office anxiety is expected: employees may still be fearful of getting ill, while others may have difficulty returning to pre-pandemic schedules. These employees will need time to transition back to routine.

For others, the impact of substance or alcohol abuse during the pandemic will make the transition more difficult. To help get these employees back on track, businesses and team leaders will have to carefully navigate recognizing who is at risk, and how to offer support and services to assist.

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What to look for

The United States government provides resources to help business look for warning signs of abuse in the workplace. They can manifest for workers who abuse alcohol, prescription, or illicit drugs. The government suggests employers look for:

  • Signs of diminished capacity
  • Frequent tardiness
  • Excessive absenteeism and leave requests
  • Absence patterns (every Monday or Friday)
  • Performance issues
  • Excuses for missed assignments or deadlines
  • Relationship issues with coworkers: belligerence; short-tempered; argumentative or becoming a ‘loner’

Physical manifestations can include:

  • Alcohol odor
  • Staggering
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • New or excessive use of mouthwash or breath mints
  • Avoiding supervisors — especially after lunch or break times
  • Tremors
  • Sleeping on duty /not at assigned station during shift

Employees who are abuse drugs or alcohol account for 65% of on-the job accidents according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But they can impact others: family members of alcoholics have higher rates of absenteeism. Recognizing the risk these employees pose to themselves, their peers, and their families is critical.

How to help

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends employee assistance programs (EAPs) as frontline resources for business and workers.

Naturally you’ll identify employees who pose an immediate risk if they arrive at work visibly impaired. But others may be struggling with substance or alcohol abuse who manage to keep under the radar: they need assistance as well.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends employee assistance programs (EAPs) as frontline resources for business and workers. Employers should encourage workers to use these programs — and other mental health services available through group coverage — as they return to work.

For those simply navigating the stress of coming back on-site, assistance can help get them over the anxiety and back on schedule and routines. For employees who struggled with addiction, abuse, or binging during the pandemic, these resources can help reverse the behaviors as they transition back.

Promote wellness

As you transition back to full production or remote/onsite work, business leaders should address need for all staff. Promoting health and wellness resources should be a top priority as employees make their way back to normalcy. These services can help employees with minor issues over the anxiety hump — and begin a process of healing for those who are facing more hurdles in their recovery.

Target employees you know or believe may have a substance or alcohol abuse problem. Privately suggest they leverage the resources available to them and ask them to check back with you for any other assistance you can provide. They may need a flexible schedule, leave of absence, or continued remote work. Some may be grateful for the suggestion and help; others may be resistant.

For staff members who resist getting help but are clearly struggling or impaired, you may consider making use of these services a condition of returning or continuing to work. The emphasis should be on recovering the employee, not on punitive measures. In some cases, you’ll be successful: in others you may have to cut your losses and let the staffer go.

Unfortunately, though more than 20 million Americans have a substance abuse disorder, only 10% seek treatment. Many fear the stigma associated with their illness: others find barriers to get the care they need. Create a pathway to for workers to get help, encouraged and promoted by their employer — it could be life altering.

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