Excerpted from an SHRM Blog by Lin Grensing-Pophal

When COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, millions of employees suddenly found themselves working from home—and many will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s a situation that benefits many but has a dangerous potential downside for others.

Amid the pandemic, mental health and substance use disorders have worsened, in some cases significantly. Of particular concern is the rising rate of opioid addiction and related deaths.

Startling Statistics
According to the National Safety Council, 75 percent of employers have been directly impacted by workers who take opioids, but only 17 percent feel well-prepared to handle the situation. Perhaps more startling are data on how—and when—employees are using substances.

Addiction treatment center Sierra Tucson’s Self-Medication Nation Survey of 1,011 employees throughout the U.S. revealed that:

These are chilling numbers that point to a critical need for education, awareness, communication and intervention.

Many Fail to Seek Help
Employees often won’t ask for help because there is a lingering stigma around substance use disorders, according to Brad Sorte, president and CEO of Caron Treatment Centers, which has facilities in multiple states. “It’s not like a medical issue in which a worker wouldn’t hesitate to submit Family and Medical Leave Act papers” to allow them to take time off to get help, he said. “There is a different feeling about mental health and substance use disorders. Employees may wonder if there will be retaliatory action or whether they will be viewed differently or as unfit, so they internalize those feelings of guilt, shame and feeling embarrassed.”

Not admitting they have a problem, Sorte said, is “the No. 1 reason for not seeking help.” They feel it’s something they can manage on their own, he noted, but “it’s a dangerous path to take to manage it yourself.”

HR professionals, along with line managers and supervisors, can play an important role in establishing a culture and climate where employees are more likely to seek the help they need, Sorte said.

Lines of Communication
“Any extra support you, as an employer, can provide to help people get through difficult times will only boost employee loyalty and productivity,” said Dr. Yusuf Sherwani, CEO and co-founder of Quit Genius, a digital clinic that has virtual medication-assisted treatment programs for multiple addictions. He offered the following suggestions for how to do this:

“Your employees need to know that they can reach out in confidence, and without judgment, if they’re struggling to keep their resolutions and find themselves in need of professional or peer support, Sherwani said. “Let them know that they are not alone, and that stress, depression and addiction issues are intense for many people right now. Talking about it can help, and sometimes just communicating about what they’re going through can be a source of healing.”

He added that HR having an open-door policy or virtual office hours “can help identify employees who are struggling and need to be connected with deeper resources.”

Employers, managers and HR teams can—and should—check in frequently with employees who are working remotely. This can be particularly important for those experiencing pain and potentially misusing opioids, Sherwani advised.

The best investment employers can make is in their people, Sorte stressed. Companies that can afford to do so, he said, should invest in technologies and platforms that allow employees to seek help privately, such as Ginger or Lyra. They represent options, separate from the workplace, that provide privacy and protection through the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

January is a time when “it’s common for people to make substance-related resolutions, especially after the difficult year many have had,” Sherwani said. “While they probably aren’t coming into work and announcing their resolutions, there are ways employers can help support them.”

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