Over the past year, employee wellness needs have largely revolved around specific COVID-19 health issues and the impacts created by pandemic-related restrictions and lifestyle changes. However, another health crisis was escalating in America alongside the pandemic—one that has continued to grow.

In the 12 months leading up to May 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded 81,230 drug overdose deaths. This was an 18.2% increase from the previous year’s numbers. A survey by alcohol.org found that, since lockdowns began in March, a third of workers admitted to drinking or using drugs while on the job. By the summer, over 40 states had reported an increase in opioid-related deaths. In December 2020, the CDC announced that opioid-related deaths have accelerated even more during the pandemic. After being overshadowed for a year, the opioid crisis and the alarming rates of overdoses and addiction are heading into the spotlight.

Substance abuse problems are not new, but pandemic-related measures have likely fueled their growth. “The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said Robert Redfield, the Director of the CDC. Isolation from friends and family, job changes, increased childcare and family responsibilities, financial hardships, and more have exacerbated mental and emotional health conditions. This has taken a toll on those who were already using or struggling, but likely, many more people have been drawn to using alcohol or drugs to cope with unprecedented levels of stress.


How Employers Can Help

It’s important that employers remain vigilant when it comes to offering support and resources for substance abuse and addiction-related needs. Given the stigma surrounding these issues as well as the possible legal consequences, employees are not eager to communicate these problems to friends and family, let alone employers. It’s also easier to hide an addiction problem at home when remotely working or socially isolating.

Notice the signs — Make sure managers have training to recognize signs of a potential substance abuse problem, such as changes in appearance, poor work performance, and taking longer breaks than normal. Of course, working virtually complicates this. Using videos for meetings can help, but managers can also be extra communicative with employees about how they’re handling life. If employees feel supported, they are more likely to open up. Managers also need to be well-versed in the benefits and resources at their employees’ disposal. Only about 10% of people struggling with addiction seek treatment, so it is imperative that support and resources are provided when employees do look for help. Additionally, companies should be aware of the health risks for their specific workforce, as employees in certain industries are more likely to develop a substance abuse problem. Workers in construction and manufacturing, for example, are more likely to be injured and develop a dependence on painkillers.

Educate and communicate — Provide content about recognizing a substance abuse issue, the negative impacts of addiction, and seeking treatment. It is also important that employees understand exactly what wellness benefits are available to them when it comes to mental health support as well as any substance abuse treatment and recovery resources.

Expand or add benefits that deal with substance abuse — Depending on resources, employers can make sure that their health plan options include comprehensive pain management and narcotics therapy management programs, pharmacy coverage oversight, and designated centers of excellence for substance use. Any telehealth programs should also include treatment for mental and behavioral conditions; these virtual resources make it easier for an employee to get access to proper medical interventional.

Make sure wellness programs address stress — If employees have adequate mental and emotional health resources, they will be able to cope with stress, depression, and other problems in a healthy and productive way. Avoiding a substance abuse dependency in the first place is the most effective—and affordable—way to combat this addiction crisis.

Provide continued support — A large percentage of addicts—somewhere between 40% and 60%, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse—will relapse. It is imperative those in recovery continue to have a supportive environment in order to be successful. Healthy outlets for stress, supportive leaders at work, alcohol-free social events, and continued health resources must be available for long-term success.

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