Substance use in the workplace: how to support member recovery

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Digital coaching solutions can help employers make lasting changes in their workplaces and support employees dealing with substance use.

Hopeless. It’s how many people feel when caught in the cycle of substance use. The struggle is weighty and ongoing as people’s brains have been trained to encourage them to keep using the substance. The cycle can often feel impossible to break. However, while difficult to achieve, lasting change can be made.

One in seven people in the United States are projected to struggle with substance use disorder at some point in their lifetime, according to a report from the surgeon general. And, while 75% of people suffering from substance use disorder are part of the workforce, most employers are wholly unaware of their workers’ private struggles and the impacts such issues can have on all their employees and workplaces.

So, what can employers do to help even when they don’t know employees are struggling?

They can offer support and resources to employees and help break down barriers to treatment, giving workers an opportunity to make long-term change. Below, we explore the pandemic’s effect on substance use, the impact substance use has on workplaces and how employers can support their employees.

Pandemic propels increased drug and alcohol use

According to a recent survey, the pandemic has resulted in notable increases in workers’ substance use issues across all generations and industries. Some one-third of responding workers who reportedly struggle with substance use issues stated that their work has suffered more since the pandemic began.

Data suggests there have been large increases in fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine use since the coronavirus pandemic was declared a national emergency in March 2020. In fact, according to a study of over 880,000 drug test specimens, entitled “The opioid epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic: Drug testing in 2020,” positivity for heroin increased by 44% once the pandemic began. An increase in the use of alcohol among U.S. adults was also noted by a study assessing the pandemic’s impact on drinking behavior and stress.

Extensive costs of substance use in the workplace

When it comes to employees’ substance use, most employers are often left in the dark while employees struggle in silence. This combination has damaging impacts. It can lead workers to leave the workforce outright or stay quiet as their work declines, damaging workplace health and safety.

For employees, the personal costs of substance use can include missed work that results in lost wages as well as the health and lifestyle side effects of drugs and alcohol use. For employers, substance use in the workplace can result in increased absenteeism, lost productivity, and additional healthcare expenses.

A recent report assessing the impact of substance use disorders in the workplace found that employees typically miss 15 work days each year for illness, injury or reasons other than vacation and holidays. On the other hand, employees with a substance use disorder were more likely to take 25.6 days off – or 1.5 weeks more than their colleagues – for illness and injury. However promising, employees who have recovered from a substance use disorder in the prior 12 months missed about 11 days of work annually.

Moreover, substance use disorder can result in higher turnover rates for employers and increase costs on recruiting, hiring, and onboarding new employees. One study found that employee turnover costs 33% of an employee’s entire salary, which stacked against the median wage in the U.S. can total about $15,000.

There are numerous negative impacts workers struggling with substance use disorders can have on workplaces that are harder to quantify including diminished job performance, faulty decision making, distraction and preoccupation with addictive substances, lack of focus, reduced cooperation with colleagues and supervisors as well as reduced workplace morale and illegal activities happening on site.

Employer support can lead to positive outcomes for all

Even without knowing about an individual’s personal struggles, employers can provide all employees with the support and resources they need to take the crucial first step toward treatment.

It starts with culture. Workplaces can positively and negatively impact the prevalence of substance use disorder. For example, workplaces where alcohol is readily available or there’s an acceptance of addictive substances can contribute to worker substance use disorder. Stressful, unhealthy workplaces can also be a breeding ground for substance use disorders. At the root of addiction is emotion, and workers who deal poorly with stress can intuitively train their brain to continue dealing with stressful situations in the same detrimental manners. Reducing stressors can play a role in helping workers overcome their struggles.

Next, employers can incorporate healthy living and substance use disorder education into their training and ongoing outreach programming. This can both inform employees about the effects of substance use disorders and help employees identify behaviors and changes in colleagues who may need support. In addition, employers can provide more robust benefits, resources, and behavior change courses, like LivingClear™, provide employees with confidential substance use disorder screening and online learning experiences, support treatment referrals, and deliver follow-up care to support employees in recovery.

By improving workplace culture, educating employees, and providing workers with supportive and confidential services, employers can break down barriers to treatment, encourage employees to seek help, and support employees in making lasting changes that benefit both the individual and workplace.

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