During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a considerable rise in substance use issues. Learn how to identify and help affected employees.

Employer Solutions, Coronavirus Updates | one year ago

How to Help Employees With Pandemic-Induced Substance Use Issues

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a considerable rise in substance use issues. Learn how to identify and help affected employees.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, we’ve all dealt with stress in different ways. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has led a large number of people into the use of drugs and alcohol. Those suffering from pandemic-induced substance use disorder include:

  • Individuals facing substance use issues for the first time

This group of people is turning to drugs and alcohol as a stress-induced coping mechanism. As this is their first experience with a substance use disorder, many of them may not even realize they have a problem.

  • Individuals relapsing to prior habits

This group of people has struggled with substance use disorders in the past. Their relapses can be attributed to the overwhelming stresses of COVID-19 and/or limited treatment and support options during the pandemic.

At Atrium Health Employer Solutions, we’re here to help. As the pandemic continues, we’re offering new virtual treatment and support options for employees struggling with substance use disorders. With our new Zoom calls and support groups, many more employees are reaching out for the help they need.

Know the warning signs

For employees coping with drugs and alcohol for the first time, there are several warning signs to look out for. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Cravings that can’t be satiated. For example, employees may feel that the amount they’ve been drinking isn’t enough anymore.
  • Turning to a substance as a means to cope with a trigger (i.e., when an employee feels stressed, overwhelmed, etc.).
  • Dependent behavior. Struggling employees may feel like they need a substance (e.g., drinks, sleeping pills, etc.) to get through each day.
  • Increased tolerance. An employee battling substance use issues will gradually increase their tolerance for drugs and alcohol. Because of this, they will require higher and higher doses of the substance(s) to reach the same euphoria.
  • Engaging in risky behavior to acquire substances or because of substance use.

“Many employees may justify these warning signs with the fact that they can still maintain their life,” says Alexander S. Gnilka, Ph.D., Atrium Health assistant vice president of addiction medicine services. “If they can get to work on time and have a productive day, drinking and/or drug use each night may not seem like an issue. But, in fact, it is.”

How to tell an employee is struggling

As an employer, it’s important to identify members of your workforce struggling with substance use disorder. Here are a few employee warning signs to look out for:

  • A new pattern of increasing or strategic absences/PTO

Certain employees may request PTO on several Fridays and/or Mondays in an effort to extend their weekend. Other PTO requests may occur around pay periods, so employees can be off work to spend their newly earned money on substances.

  • A new pattern of tardiness

Be sure to note new patterns of tardiness, especially on Monday mornings. It is also wise to observe employees leaving early every evening.

  • Changes in behavior, performance at work or appearance

If an employee begins exhibiting new behaviors (such as asking you for more money), a concerning change in appearance (i.e., not looking as put together as usual) or decreased work performance, there may be cause for concern.

Keep in mind that these warning signs don’t always definitively point to substance use issue. However, if you notice an employee exhibiting one or more of the above signs, you may want to have a conversation with them.

How you can help

“If you suspect that one of your employees is exhibiting signs of substance use disorder, try approaching them with open conversation,” says Gnilka. “You can ask questions such as ‘I’ve noticed a change in x, y or z. How are you doing? Is there something you’d like to talk about?’ It’s surprising how much you can learn by simply showing that you care.”

As aforementioned, several factors may contribute to one’s reliance on drugs and alcohol. From stress to mental health issues, a variety of circumstances could have led them to this point. While it’s not your job to diagnose, there are a few resources to help you foster a safe and trusting work environment.

Here are two ways you can help your team seek care:

  • Employers can refer team members to our Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Through this program, employees can voluntarily seek help. All EAP appointments are confidential, and no classified health information will be shared with participants’ employers.
  • Employees can also reach out to us individually to participate in our EAP. Again, all information discussed during appointments will remain confidential.

During each EAP session, which occurs in person or over the phone, our Atrium Health experts will help employees overcome their substance use disorder by addressing lifestyle triggers, habits and solutions. At this time, many employees will be granted Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, which will secure their job and allow them time to get help. While employers will be aware of the FMLA leave, no further information will be disclosed unless the employee chooses to do so.

Support your workforce with confidential, easy-to-access mental health resources. For more information on our Employee Assistance Program, behavioral health services, or to request an appointment, please contact us at 704-444-2400 or visit AtriumHealth.org/BehavioralHealth.