The Surprising Facts About Substance Use Disorder Among Remote Workers

With COVID-19 came more people working from home; and, with more people working from home came more midday laundry, more adopted pets, and more pajama bottoms. However, there is another darker consequence from the rise of remote work that’s too often ignored.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Substance Use Disorder among remote workers has soared. That’s important news for many reasons, including shining a light on the opportunity organizations have to help.

Here’s everything HR and benefits teams need to know about this worrying trend.

What is Substance Use Disorder?

The National Institute Defines Substance Use Disorder (SUD) as:

“a treatable mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to their inability to control their use of substances like legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications. Symptoms can be moderate to severe, with addiction being the most severe form of SUD.”

Impacting 1 in 6 working-age Americans, SUD knows no race, gender, income or religion. It is a mental health disorder that can affect anyone. If left untreated, it can have a devastating impact on an individual’s health, family, employment, and overall wellbeing.

Are Remote Working and Substance Use Disorder Connected?

Working remotely comes with a host of benefits for both employees and employers alike. But a recent report published by SHRM reveals that not all of the changes that accompany remote work are positive.

The number of working-age Americans struggling with SUD rose 23% compared to pre-pandemic days, according to the report. That’s about 27 million people, a number too large to ignore—especially for employers.

While Substance Use Disorder cannot be boiled down to a single cause, working from home can create the type of environment that facilitates this behavior. Emotions like fear, isolation, boredom or stress can lead to reaching for drugs or alcohol to cope.

Experts link the correlation of remote work and SUD to several factors:

  • Humans are social creatures — Working remotely can potentially destroy the social connections an individual feels while physically in the workplace, creating a sense of isolation.
  • Remote work blurs the line between work and home life — While being at home can lead to some productive habits like completing more housework, it can also mean substances like alcohol or drugs are more within reach during working hours.
  • Rising stressWorkplace stress has never been higher. Remote employees who need to find ways to cope may turn to alcohol and drugs in great numbers while at home.

Above all, it’s important to remember that Substance Use Disorder is a disease, not a personal or moral failing. It is treatable. As an employer or HR representative, you have the power to potentially make a positive impact in someone’s life. Not only that, but you can also create a positive impact on your organization’s bottom line, too.

How Can Employers Help Employees Struggling With SUD?

Many employers remain in the dark around how SUD impacts their organization’s performance and ultimately how to help team members who may be struggling. Looked at through a macro lens, Substance Use Disorders cause employers an estimated $81 billion every year.

Fortunately, treatment is possible. And with the right tools and intervention, treatment can save lives as well as dollars. A recent study estimates that the annual per-employee savings for offering SUD treatment equals:

  • $536 per year in health care utilization
  • About $4,000 in turnover and recruitment costs
  • About $8,400 in productivity loss
  • Other expenses related to unscheduled leave time

So what can you do to help your team members who are struggling? Here are three steps you can take right now that will make a positive impact.

1. Provide managerial training to recognize the signs of SUD

The list of reasons why individuals struggling with SUD may not seek help is almost endless. From stigma, to lack of awareness, to fear of job repercussions, it can feel like the odds are stacked against them. When managers can identify and address the issue from the top down, these barriers become less burdensome.

Signs of SUD can include:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Unpredictable behavior
  • Declining hygiene and appearance
  • Irritability
  • Decreased job performance

2. Show your commitment to sober and sober curious lifestyles

Often inadvertently, alcohol can become the center of workplace bonding events and social gatherings. Just think: even as the world turned more to remote work during the pandemic, we were quick to invent the idea of virtual happy hours. These types of events can be great for building social cohesion within an organization, but for those who struggle with substance misuse, they can create a crisis.

Organizations can support team members who are sober, sober curious, or who are actively struggling with SUD by providing options.

Instead of a happy hour event, offer a mini golf outing. Instead of gifting team members bottles of wine for the holidays—an especially challenging time for members of this community—send gift cards or something to satisfy their sweet tooth.

Outside of scheduled events, organizations an also offer affinity groups for sober lifestyles, helping to build an internal community of support.

Showing your commitment to people currently struggling or at risk of SUD looks different for every organization. As long as you put empathy at the center of your decision making, you’re headed in the right direction.

3. Offer a comprehensive, people-first EAP

The right EAP can be life changing for someone struggling with SUD.

Substance Use Disorder is a complex condition that an online search can’t sufficiently unpack. A people-first EAP can connect individuals with the exact kind of help they need. Whether that means connecting with a workplace counselor to provide mental health support, or connecting individuals directly to an addiction counselor, EAPs serve as a bridge to treatment.

And, perhaps most importantly, EAPs are anonymous. With stigma being an enormous barrier preventing individuals struggling with SUD from getting help, the anonymity of EAPs creates an easier path to care.

Ready to help your employees? Here’s where to start.

Carebridge is a comprehensive EAP that helps build a mentally healthy workforce. Learn more about our full suite of offerings—including support for Substance Use Disorder—by requesting more info here.