Supporting Employees Through Substance Abuse During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of extreme stress for many—impacting not only individuals who were already vulnerable to substance abuse, but also people who have not previously struggled with addiction.

In a recent International Foundation webcast, Rising Substance Abuse: Supporting Employees in Changing Work Environments, speakers Toni Harrington, MSW, M.Sc., director, Specialized Services and Complex Care at Homewood Health in Guelph, Ontario and Andy Johnson, administrator, Teamster Center Services Fund, New York, New York shared the eye-opening substance abuse data that has come out of the pandemic and provided advice for employers and plan sponsors to help their workers through the pandemic and beyond.

Supporting Employees Through Substance Abuse During COVID-19

Why Substance Abuse Rose So Quickly During COVID-19

Since March, both the U.S. and Canada report worrying statics about substance abuse. Some disruptions that have played a role in increased substance abuse and the risk for relapse during the pandemic include:

Decreased Access to Services

COVID-19 caused reduced access and delays in the services people rely on to maintain sobriety. Although some of these services, such as peer support groups, were quick to move virtual, there was a disruption in support as some treatment facilities briefly closed or as facilities reduced their admissions due to COVID-19 safety precautions. This resulted in lengthy wait times for individuals seeking help.

66th Annual Employee Benefits Conference Virtual Conference

“For individuals with a substance use disorder or individuals with compromised coping, this availability or reduced access to services was quite problematic,” explained Ms. Harrington. “These types of changes, which occurred quite suddenly in terms of one’s access to services, caused a stress on an already compromised group of individuals.”

Disruption in Routines

COVID-19 upended our routines almost overnight. It caused anxiety, fear and stress on relationships. Additional stress came as millions of people were laid off or furloughed. The uncertainty of it all had a huge psychological impact on people and manifested into irritability, frustration, insomnia, anger or substance abuse. The stress and the unknown of the pandemic provided individuals with opportunities to minimize and rationalize their behavior.

The pandemic also increased rates of depression, causing substance abuse to rise. Substance abuse is common among people battling a depressive disorder, as individuals turn to alcohol or drugs to feel better or numb the feelings of depression. 

Increased Social Isolation

As quarantines, lockdowns and safer-at-home orders went into place, the pandemic caused a sudden increase in social isolation. For people battling substance abuse, this meant that they were separated from their usual contact spots of job, family and community. All their accountability points disappeared.

“Isolation is one of addiction’s best friends. Just the nature of addiction—It lives and thrives in the environment of secrecy,” said Mr. Johnson. “While many aspects of life shut down as a result of the pandemic, substance abuse flourished, making ready access to treatment even more imperative.”

How Can Employers Help Workers Going Forward?

It is likely we will be dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic for the foreseeable future. Ms. Harrington shared a study from Toronto, conducted after SARS, that found a high prevalence of psychological distress among individuals who had been quarantined. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression were observed in 28.9% and 31.2% of respondents, respectively.

Employers need to remember that all their prepandemic principles still apply when employees are facing substance use disorders—Employers should not abandon what they know to work. It is important that the practices and processes that have been successful for planning, communicating, managing risk and evaluating outcomes remain in place.

Benefit plans should expect the number of employees needing assistance to rise and should be prepared to adapt to changing needs and services. Concerningly, early projections indicate that suicide prevention in the context of COVID-19-related unemployment is a critical priority.

[Related Reading: COVID-19’s Impact on Employee Mental Health Continues]

Employers should provide participants with information on common mental health issues and identify plan-sponsored assistance programs and local resources. This information should not be presented just once—It should be presented repeatedly, through all the formats used to communicate, including websites, newsletters, social media accounts, etc.

While the pandemic has resulted in major stress for everyone and has compromised mental health for many already vulnerable people, it is not an excuse to not get help or for continuing unhealthy behaviors. Employers and plan sponsors need to recognize the needs of their population and communicate the support their benefit programs can offer.

“Most employees may not know how to ask for help. It’s important that employers and benefit plans are aware of the different signs and take the risk to say ‘How are you doing? Do you need some help?’ That may be a life-saving thing that you could say to someone,” concluded Johnson.

Learn More

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in substance abuse across North America. Tune in to the free on-demand webcast: Rising Substance Abuse: Supporting Employees in Changing Work Environments to learn more about the challenges we are facing and how plan sponsors can send the right message to their employees.

53rd Annual Canadian Employee Benefits Conference
Brenda Hofmann

Brenda Hofmann
Communications Manager at the International Foundation

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