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Working Under the Influence – An HR Issue On the Rise

Date Published: November 16, 2021 | Last Updated:September 15, 2023 | By Linda Pophal
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It’s been widely reported that the pandemic and its related impacts on home and work life have created a great deal of stress for employees who are increasingly at risk for alcohol and other substance abuse. In traditional work settings, managers and others have “line of sight” over employees where erratic behavior can be observed. With more employees now working from home, though, is there the potential that some might engage in drinking or substance abuse while on the job? What is that potential and how can employers take steps to protect their staff – and their companies?

Concerns on the Rise During the Pandemic

Boris Mackey is the editor-in-chief and community outreach manager at Rehab 4 Addiction. He has more than twenty years of experience in the field of mental health and currently works as an addiction therapist, helping to assist people in the alcohol detox and rehab process. “There is definitely potential that employees may engage in drinking or taking substances while on the job, especially if they’re working from home,” says Mackey. “The past year has proved very challenging for many people, especially when trying to maintain a career amid a global pandemic.”

Charles Pollack, MD, an emergency physician who has served in leadership roles with academic medical centers across the globe, agrees. “There is certainly the potential that some employees may engage in drinking or substance abuse while on the job and working from home. It was the perfect storm of events, so to speak, that led us here: social isolation and dramatic changes in workplace dynamics as a result of lockdowns, pandemic-related stress, lack of qualified mental health providers, and more,” he says. “Today, we’re looking at a large group of people who have learned to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol just to get through the workday.”

In this environment, remote work can add additional pressure and make it more challenging for employers to stay on top of potential issues.

Pollack points to data from the American Addiction Centers which indicates that more than one in three Americans say that they’re more likely to drink in isolation. “We’re likely all familiar with the rise in drug use, like opioids and illicit stimulants, throughout the pandemic,” he says.

There are, though, some proactive steps employers can take to minimize this risk and to ensure that employees have access to the right resources if they need them.

Taking Proactive Steps

A first important step for employers to take, says Pollack, is to have a workplace drug and alcohol policy in place. “This helps proactively prevent and educate on the effects of harmful alcohol use on individual performance and on the workplace in general and can help promote the counseling and support your organization offers,” he says.

There also are additional proactive steps that employers should take to address the potential for alcohol and substance abuse, especially among those working remotely, Mackey says. Awareness is important. “Employers should remind employees of the dangers and consequences of engaging in this kind of behavior while at work, and even in their personal lives.”

Anjela Mangrum, founder and president of Mangrum Career Solutions and a certified personnel consultant, agrees and also suggest that employers share this information broadly rather than focusing on individual employees. “Rather than risking discrimination by approaching workers about suspected substance abuse, it’s best to focus on prevention,” she says. “The best-case scenario would be to have a drug and alcohol policy in place, but if your company doesn’t, at least consider mentioning the prohibition of drug and alcohol use during work hours in your remote work policy or agreement.”

Staying in Touch

Employees who are “out of sight and out of mind” during the pandemic may be especially at risk for engaging in unhealthy behaviors, including substance abuse. Consequently, maintaining multiple connections with employees can help.

Managers can do this on a casual basis as well as only for formally scheduled meetings, says Mangrum. Employees who know that they may be “dropped in on” by a manager, supervisor, or even colleague, will be less likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors. “One-on-one sessions are best to note any changes in behavior while establishing trust and encouraging employees to open up about any work-related struggles,” Mangrum suggests.

It’s also important for managers and supervisors to be alert to signs that an employee may be having issues, says Brian Wind, PhD, CBSM, Chief Clinical Officer of Journey Pure, an addiction treatment center.  These might include, he says, “increased fatigue, slurred speech, drop in performance, glassy eyes or being overly disorganized.” He suggest that companies train employees “on the appropriate courses of action to take, such as informing the manager or how to intervene and direct the employee to resources that can help them.”

Some companies have experienced, and dealt with such issues.

Janelle Owens is HR director at Test Prep Insight. She says that her company has had multiple incidents of employees being suspected of drinking on the job and have implemented measures to address the situation, specifically sporadic check-ins with HR. “Our HR team has been given full access to every employee’s calendar, and we’ll randomly place a last second call on an employee’s schedule to check in and make sure everybody is above board,” she says.

They do this about once every two weeks, Owens says, “but there is no precise cadence in order to keep them on their toes.” Ninety nine percent of the time, she says, the calls are simply a “nice way to stay in touch with old friends.” But, she says, the calls are necessary “to let employees know that just because they’re working from home doesn’t mean they can get away with illicit activities.”

It’s very important for companies to focus on offering support for employees both for building awareness and for helping them to address any substance abuse issues they may have, or that might emerge.

Offer Support

Have multiple options available for support, Pollack recommends. “Give your employees options that fit their individual needs. Everyone is unique, so providing a variety of resources, including counseling and digital therapeutics, is likely worth exploring,” he says.

In addition, Mackey suggests: “Weekly mental health sessions and drop-ins are an effective way of monitoring the wellbeing of staff as well as making the place of employment more inclusive.” Employers might also want to consider hosting workshops about alcohol and substance abuse, he suggests.

Another thing that employers can do proactively to minimize these concerns, says Mackey, is to create and sustain an environment that is free from intense pressure and where employees feel that they are listened to. “Turning to drugs and alcohol is a coping mechanism for many during turbulent times in their personal lives as well as in the wider world,” he says.

Employers are in a position to help employees get help, says Mangrum. “Enabling and encouraging employees to seek support by reminding them of any resources you have available is a great idea,” she says. “For instance, sharing information about your company’s Employee Assistance Program or other wellbeing resources at the end of conference calls can serve as an excellent reminder for struggling team members to get help,” she says.

Finally, suggests Pollack, pay close attention to your culture. “Are work factors impacting employee morale? Are employees working longer hours? Are there’re workplace conflicts? Is the work highly stressful or isolating?” These are all situations that can drive substance abuse.

These have been trying times for many employees and, for many, are likely to continue being stressful. Employers can be a useful aid in helping to stave off, and respond to, issues of substance abuse that may become more prevalent during the pandemic.

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