Remote Work Associated with Rise in Substance Use Disorders
"Why don't we do a little day drinking? Blame it on the workday," sings country band Little Big Town in its 2014 hit "Day Drinking." Whether they're country music fans or not, HR leaders can't ignore that daytime alcohol and drug use is rising. An estimated 1 in 6, or 27 million, working-age Americans—those ages 25 […]
"Why don't we do a little day drinking? Blame it on the workday," sings country band Little Big Town in its 2014 hit "Day Drinking." Whether they're country music fans or not, HR leaders can't ignore that daytime alcohol and drug use is rising.
An estimated 1 in 6, or 27 million, working-age Americans—those ages 25 to 54—have substance use disorders (SUDs), according to a study released in May 2022. The study's authors said that figure represents a 23 percent jump compared with the pre-pandemic days, and is behind 9 percent to 26 percent of the overall drop in labor force participation.
Isolation that began with the pandemic and has continued thanks to remote and hybrid work is associated with the staggering increase in SUDs, experts say.
"Humans are social creatures. Negative emotions like loneliness, boredom, stress and fear, when felt in isolation, lead to chemical coping behaviors," said Dr. C. Luke Peterson, associate medical director at Sierra Tucson, a drug recovery center in Arizona. "People who either chose to isolate at home during the pandemic or were mandated to work from home were associated with higher rates of alcohol consumption."
The nature of remote work may be contributing to this trend, one expert said.
"Remote work has blurred the lines between work and home life, creating the expectation that we must always be connected to our virtual work life," said Terri-Lynn MacKay, mental health director at substance use treatment provider ALAViDA, a LifeSpeak Inc. company, based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"Businesses of all sizes are negatively affected and bear the cost of addiction, but many of these costs are 'hidden,' or, if they are tracked, they are not viewed as 'connected' to substance misuse and addiction," said Cheryl Brown Merriwether, SHRM-SCP, co-founder, vice president and executive director of the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education, based in Orlando, Fla.
Some hidden costs of addiction in the workplace are loss of productivity, low morale, high turnover, absenteeism, presenteeism, high insurance costs, sexual harassment, accidents, theft, and health care costs, she explained.
In addition, "Quest Diagnostics reported that the drug positivity rate for marijuana [post-accident] has reached a 25-year high," Merriwether said. "This is a risk management issue for employers, particularly given that marijuana is now legal for recreational purposes in 22 states [plus Washington, D.C.], and 38 states [along with Washington, D.C.] have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes."
Pre-pandemic, observing visual indicators that an employee was under the influence during work hours was arguably much easier. But symptoms actually may vary based on the type of substance. Plus, signs of addiction can vary from person to person, said Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture for Temecula, Calif.-based Culture Partners.
"Some [employees with SUD] may be high-achievers that are very productive. Others are not," she said. "What's most important for leaders is to create a culture where employees can come forth for help when they realize they have a problem."
In addition, absenteeism, distractibility, fatigue and irritability can all provide clues. A sudden change in an individual's job performance can be yet another indicator.
"Look for changes to employees' job performance: Are they struggling to meet deadlines or starting their workdays at inconsistent times? When you see them on camera, do they appear restless or like they are having a hard time focusing?" said Sarah Gunderson, senior consultant at Segal, an HR and employee benefits consulting firm headquartered in New York City.
However, Gunderson cautioned against jumping to conclusions, as those indicators could be tied to other life stressors or mental health conditions.
"To help managers handle these situations as they arise, look for training and manager consultations on how to approach employees who appear to be struggling. These resources are often available through an organization's existing resources, like its employee assistance program [EAP]," she said.
Kriegel also recommended reading the chapter in Alcoholics Anonymous (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Fourth Edition, 2001) titled "To Employers" to develop a deeper understanding of how substance use impacts individuals.
Still, Merriwether noted it may be too late to prevent SUD by the time the signs and symptoms have progressed to the point where others recognize them.
"In addition, the fear of potential job loss from having to go through HR to access EAP services is one of the reasons why EAP utilization rates are so low," she said. "This is why I advocate [that] preventive, addiction-awareness education initiatives and programs be provided to employees at all levels throughout an organization," implemented before managers and HR see employees struggling.
Company Culture and Substance Use
There is a significant stigma surrounding substance use, which prevents many individuals from seeking assistance. MacKay encourages organizations to create a culture that views substance use issues with empathy, rather than a punitive or alarmist approach.
"When people feel like they can go to their employers without being judged, it increases the chances that they will ask for help," she said.
"When workers were first required to work from home during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, some employers sent cases of wine to their employees without asking if they even wanted to receive them," Merriwether said.
On the plus side, other companies are expanding their business resource/affinity groups and health and wellness programs to identify individuals with SUD and garner their support for the creation and administration of these programs, she said. Examples include Salesforce (Soberforce), Oracle (OAR: Oracle Alliance for Recovery) and Wayfair (WaySober).
Still, MacKay noted that more work needs to be done.
"We have come a long way with mental health, and as a result, people now feel more comfortable talking about their experiences with depression and anxiety, but the same progress has not yet been made with substance use," she said.
Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.
Article written by: Orville Lynch, Jr.
Mr. Lynch, a member of the legendary two-time Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame Award winning Lynch Family.
Mr. Lynch is a nationally recognized urban media executive with over 20+ years of diversity recruitment and serial entrepreneur with numerous multi-million dollar exits.