CHICAGO — As companies call workers back to offices, some may face a new challenge: employees who became addicted to drugs or alcohol during the pandemic.
The isolation and stress of the past year spurred alcohol and drug use. Some people have been able to hide those habits while working from home, but employers may soon find themselves dealing with substance abuse head-on as workers again convene in conference rooms and share cubicle walls.
Companies that turn a blind eye to the issue do so at their own peril, experts say.
“Without question, the workforce that’s returning is not the same as the one that left,” said Paula Allen, global leader of research and total well-being at LifeWorks, which sells services to help companies with employee health and well-being and has an office in Chicago. “We have a lot of anxiety. We have a lot of people on edge. We are seeing more unhealthy behaviors, including more risky substance use.”
During the early months of the pandemic, drug and alcohol use increased sharply.
In Cook County, the average number of opioid overdose deaths rose nearly 26% during Illinois’ first stay-at-home order in spring 2020, according to a Northwestern Medicine study. About 13% of about 5,400 American adults who responded to a June 2020 survey said they had started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19, according to findings reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The problem has persisted, even as people have become vaccinated and the country has reopened.
In a late April and early May survey by LifeWorks and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation of people employed or recently employed, about 31% of respondents who use alcohol said they’ve been drinking more since the pandemic started, and, of people who use drugs, about 29% said they’ve been using more.
While some people who used drugs and alcohol over the past year will be able to stop when they have to return to their desks, “There will be a lot of people who developed significant problems while they were isolating,” said Tom Britton, president and CEO of the Gateway Foundation, an Illinois-based addiction treatment organization.
Gateway, which has 16 locations in Illinois, got about twice as many calls during the pandemic from people who had never had substance use problems before COVID-19, Britton said.
“We’re living in the most psychologically traumatic time of any of our lifetimes and people reach to whatever supports they can find,” Britton said.
For some people, one or two glasses of wine a day turned into three or four once they no longer had to show up at an office every day, said Shane Hassler, virtual program services manager at Gateway.
Hassler said at least one Gateway client lost her job during the pandemic because of substance use. He said the woman’s employer gave her time off to go to a residential treatment program, but she relapsed and ultimately couldn’t perform her job to her employer’s standards.
“She lived by herself and it just really exacerbated her substance use from the start of the shelter-in-place,” Hassler said.
Robert Duckels, 47 of Carlinville, Ill., knows firsthand how working from home can worsen an addiction.
About three years ago, before COVID-19, the attorney’s drinking problem became more severe as he worked from home. He stashed liquor bottles throughout his house to drink in secret, away from the eyes of his children and wife, who were mostly at work and school during the day.
Though Duckels didn’t work and drink at the same time, “I would arrange my workdays around how and when I would get my work done so I could drink,” Duckels said. When “you’re not being watched then it is much easier to feed your addiction in a way that will cause your body to get used to more consumption consistently throughout the day.”
He managed, for a time, to do his job despite his addiction. But when he reached a low point, and he finally told his law firm that he was an alcoholic and needed to take a leave to go to rehab, his bosses didn’t seem very surprised, he said. He believes he would have eventually lost his job as his drinking worsened and his productivity continued to slide.
His law firm was supportive, allowing him to go to rehab at Gateway and then return to work when he was ready. Duckels hopes that other employers are equally understanding, as workers return to the office, in some cases, with new or worse substance abuse problems.
Not everyone with a problem, however, asks for help. And it may be tough for employers to spot problems until they become disruptive, Britton said. Many managers aren’t trained to notice substance abuse issues or may feel uncomfortable asking employees if they’re OK, he said.
“Somebody has to (do something) really, really significant, do something obvious, to get caught in the workplace,” Britton said.
Dealing with workers with substance use disorders also may not be at the top of employers’ to-do lists at the moment, as they figure out how to bring their employees back safely after a year’s absence, Allen said.
“The thing about substance use is people work very hard to hide it, and people don’t look for it, and when you are distracted, you’re not going to see it as much,” she said.
But it’s something employers should zero in on, and quickly, experts say. The longer a person’s substance use problem goes unchecked, the more the person’s productivity and health may suffer, costing companies and individuals more in the long-run, Britton said.
Many companies try to help workers with substance abuse issues through employee assistance programs, which offer confidential, often-free counseling and other services. Chicago-based HealthJoy, which offers a digital platform for employers to use with their health and wellness programs, has seen an uptick in the number of employers wanting to implement employee assistance programs and behavioral health programs in recent months, said Doug Morse-Schindler, president and co-founder.
Most large and medium-size companies in the U.S. have employee assistance programs, according to the International Employee Assistance Professionals Association.
One challenge with those programs, however, is making sure employees know they exist. The May LifeWorks survey found that 44% of respondents didn’t know if their employer offered resources to help with substance use issues or weren’t sure what resources were available.
It’s also important that managers be trained in how to deal with workers with substance use disorders, Allen said. Supervisors should be taught to approach workers with concerns privately and tell them what, specifically, they’ve noticed has changed. They must then reassure workers that they’re on their side, and then help them find a solution or point them toward resources, Allen said.
It’s something that’s long been emphasized in the local construction industry, where safety is critical, said Tom Cuculich, executive director of Chicagoland Associated General Contractors, which represents employees of general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers who work in commercial construction. The association has put on trainings to educate managers and employees on the telltale signs of drug problems and mental health issues for years, he said. It’s important, in those cases, to let workers know what supports are available, he said.
Other companies say they’re offering one-on-one counseling to employees and managers as they return to the office.
Companies that are successful in handling returning workers will be those that create programs to help with not just substance abuse, but also other issues that arose out of the pandemic, such as depression and anxiety, said Cheryl Larson, president and CEO of the Midwest Business Group on Health.
“Our employees are under a lot of stress,” Cuculich said. “We’ve got to keep an eye on people and make sure they know there are resources out there.”