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Addressing Substance Abuse in the Remote Workplace

February 05, 2021 Leadership
By Dom Nicastro

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased concerns about employee well-being, mental health and substance abuse.

The National Safety Council (NSC) reported spikes in fatal opioid overdoses last year and ongoing concern about mental illness or substance use disorders in connection with COVID-19. The council called on employers to prioritize employee stress and emotional and mental health, both now and as employees return to traditional work environments. 

"Extended social isolation can lead to the development of substance use disorders,” NSC officials said. “Those with previous substance use disorders are even more vulnerable due to decreased accessibility to treatment, recovery supports and harm reduction services, all a result of the pandemic."

It all adds up to new territory for organizational leaders. Yes, HR leaders are trained to address substance abuse in the workplace, and employee assistance programs (EAPs) often include resources to help employees cope. The federal government even provides resources. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) workplace toolkit for employers provides tools and techniques to gain a better understanding of how substance abuse may be impacting the workplace or employees. It includes survey questionnaires, administrative data, statistical analyses as well as tips on observations, in-depth interviews and focus groups to identify behavior.

But no government organization or HR association put out a Workplace Substance Abuse Pandemic Playbook. COVID-19 caught the entire workplace off-guard, from a technology point of view but also a human and emotional standpoint.

The Toll the Pandemic Has Taken

Since March 2020, 49% of employees reported less energy for non-work activities, 42% said they’ve had less interest in socializing with friends, 42% had more trouble sleeping at night and 33% reported more alcohol or substance use than usual, according to a report from employee experience platform provider Limeade.

The New York University School of Public Health reported in January 2021 that 29% of 5,850 survey respondents have increased their alcohol use during the pandemic. Further, people with depression were 64% more likely to increase their alcohol intake, and those with anxiety were 41% more likely to do so. Employees with substance use disorders miss two more weeks of work annually than their peers, averaging nearly five weeks (24.6 days) a year, according to the NSC.

“The pandemic has been hard on all of us, and this can be especially true for those in recovery and struggling with substance abuse,” said Deb Muller, CEO at Florham Park, NJ-based HR Acuity, which provides a platform for employee relations management. “Additional stressors from COVID-19, the economy and the political environment can bring on mental health issues and can lead to, or resurface, addiction. HR and employee relations teams want to step in and help, but less face-to-face contact makes it more difficult to offer support and identify exactly who needs assistance.”

Related Article: How Remote Working Changed Company Culture and What to Do About it

Be Careful With the COVID-19 Happy Hour

Here's one issue to address right off the bat: Alcohol in the workplace is often as common as meetings. The pandemic may have shut down office holiday parties and cut off the beer tap at the cool companies, but COVID-19 has boosted virtual happy hour, with employees sharing a virtual glass of wine or two on pandemic Friday nights. 

Sure, companies don’t mandate alcoholic beverages but imagine you’re an employee who struggles with addiction in a workplace that encourages alcohol.

Is there a way for companies to balance the need for employees to let off steam and bond while respecting those employees struggling with alcohol addiction?

For starters, don’t fall for stories that other businesses that allow alcohol in the fridge at work are more attractive than employers that don't, said Beth Siegert, founder of Siegert & Associates, which specializes in addiction recovery services. ”Multiple litigation has happened when an intoxicated employee gets into an auto accident or acts badly after being allowed or encouraged by the corporate culture to drink at work," she said.

Don’t let the work culture appear to support drinking as a reward for hard work, Siegert added. “It supports the denial and minimization of those with substance problems,” she said.

Remember: Laws Exist Here

HR leaders must act with compassion and sensitivity when addressing substance abuse in the workplace. But there are a few challenges; namely, employees don't readily come forward with their struggles. And further, there are legal barriers to approaching employees about it.

“Employee substance abuse is one of the trickiest issues an employer can face from a human resources and a legal perspective, and the move to remote work during the pandemic has only complicated things more for employers,” said Christopher Feudo, partner at Boston-based law firm Foley Hoag.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights lays out nicely what the American Disabilities Act (ADA) says about substance abuse and discrimination in the workplace. And here’s a good source on substance abuse provisions in the Family Medical Leave Act.

The American Disabilities Act and state anti-discrimination laws treat substance abuse as a disability, meaning employers are obligated to offer employees reasonable accommodations, according to Feudo. But, he added, those same laws place substantial limits on the types of inquiries an employer can make about employee medical issues.

Related Article: 3 Tips to Create a More Resilient and Productive Workforce

Focus on Employee Behavior and Performance

With this in mind, the guiding principle, Feudo suggested, is to focus on employee behavior rather than the cause of the behavior. Document and hold employees accountable when they violate company rules or fail to meet performance expectations. 

“If the employee is engaging in problematic behavior in the workplace or if an employee’s performance has deteriorated, employers should focus on addressing the issue rather than trying to ascertain whether the employee has a substantive abuse issue that is resulting that behavior,” Feudo said. “While substance abuse is a covered disability under anti-discrimination laws, those laws do not prohibit employers from addressing misconduct or performance issues that result from employee substance abuse."

Where employers get in trouble, he said, is when they take action based on an assumption that an employee has a substance abuse issue and treat that employee less favorably than others as a result.

Employees May Open Up

Aside from liability concerns, focusing on employee behavior and performance instead of trying to diagnose the cause can often be the best approach to get assistance to employees with substance abuse issues, according to Feudo. Often, when confronted with feedback about their workplace behavior, employees will recognize that their drug or alcohol use has become a problem.

“The employee coming to that realization places employers in a better position to offer necessary accommodations to address the issues — often leave to receive substance abuse treatment — as well as resources to get help, such as through an employer-sponsored employee assistance program,” Feudo said.

EAPs are voluntary, work-based programs that offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services to employees who have both personal and workplace problems, according to Tauhidah Shakir, chief diversity officer at Paylocity, an HR and payroll software provider based in Schaumburg, Ill. 

Employers should be communicating with their benefits providers about the types of additional support they can provide to employees, Shakir added. EAPs can help address a wide range of problems, from substance abuse to stress or grief. Additionally, mobile applications can supplement these benefits, such as meQuilibrium, a resilience platform that provides stress management solutions and exercises that employees can turn to whenever they need.

Related Article: Does Your Company's HR Lack Heart?

Keeping Employees Connected in a Pandemic

So how do you spot problematic workplace behavior in a virtual setting? Are there obvious signs of potential substance abuse when employees are remote? Bob slurring his speech often on Zoom calls could be about poor bandwidth rather than drinking on the job, after all.

In the work-from-home environment, managers should have frequent contact with employees throughout the day via telephone or video conferencing, Feudo said. Email is efficient for tasks but it does not allow the employer to see or hear their employees.

“Scheduling regular calls or Zoom meetings — either on a team or individual basis — makes a lot of sense from an employee relations perspective,” he said. “I also recommend that managers periodically check in with their reports to see how they are holding up during the pandemic and see if there is anything the supervisor or the company could be doing to support the employee. These steps can help spot and address issues because things have devolved into an untenable situation that negatively impacts the employee’s health and the employer’s business.”

Putting the Human Back in Human Resources

Compliance concerns have dominated many approaches to the workforce. HR professionals have long sought the advice of legal counsel and consultants to ensure strict adherence to rules, according to Cheryl Brown Merriwether, vice president and executive director of the International Center for Addiction & Recovery Education (ICARE) and president of Greater Orlando Society for Human Resource Management (GOSHRM).

Unfortunately, for many reasons, the line between personal and professional, home and work has grown ever harder to identify. And, beginning in March 2020, as a direct result of COVID-19, “the demarcation has been completely obliterated,” Brown Merriwether said.

How can HR professionals best work within these parameters? By being more human. HR can incorporate the services of non-clinical yet trained professionals such as health, wellness and recovery coaches or others, such as addiction awareness facilitators, she said.

“These professionals can provide education webinars, lunch and learns, facilitate panel discussions, share resources, conduct information sharing sessions in addition to providing one-on-one or group coaching services,” Brown Merriwether said. “Every workplace has individuals working within the enterprise that may have utilized mental behavioral health or recovery support services.”

HR practitioners should also encourage a workplace culture that provides safety for people to share recovery stories, and guide others to resources and assistance they need for themselves. It's about creating a "culture of caring," she said.

Understand the Real Definition of Addiction

But it goes beyond merely making resources available. HR must be educated about what addiction really is, according to Tim Stein, vice president of human capital at American Addiction Centers. HR would also benefit with a proactive policy that clearly spells out what the company will do when an employee admits they are struggling with addiction. Addiction is a brain disease, Stein said.

“When people understand it in that perspective, they understand it does not discriminate," he said. "Addiction will hit athletes, actors, all ages, races — no one is immune."

"HR must also realize that most substances that people become addicted to can be very dangerous to detox or get clean on your own. Alcohol is an example of a substance that is life threatening if you don’t have the 24/7 care. Employees may need to take medical leave, and it should be treated the same way you would treat someone who just had surgery or broke their leg.”

Have Candid Discussions With Employees

The urge to keep substance abuse private from employers is strong. What happens if an employee does proactively reach out to employers for help? Have a candid discussion regarding the positive outcomes that can come with treatment if the employee approaches you, Siegert said. If you have examples of people who have done well after treatment, without revealing identity tell the employee how well the person has done in their career and with their family.

“Offer programs outside of the corporation’s EAP as many people do not trust that their treatment will be confidential if arranged through an internal department,” Siegert said.

Tell the employee that when someone doesn’t get help, give them the lowdown on what has transpired. Provide examples. “Many employees believe they don’t really have a problem," she said, "or they can fix it themselves."

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