A Guide for Managing Substance Use in a COVID-era Workplace
During the COVID pandemic of the last two years, mental health has significantly declined. Depression, anxiety and substance use have all been on the rise. As COVID restrictions begin to be relaxed and workplaces begin to reopen, many employees whose mental health has declined are beginning to return to work. As a supervisor, it is more critical than ever to know how to effectively manage such employees. This guide will help you to effectively support employees who may be dealing with substance use issues.
In this guide, we use the term “substance use issue” to refer to any involvement with a substance that has a negative impact, ranging from consuming more than is desired to meeting criteria for a substance use disorder (SUD).
Substance Use and the Workplace: A Primer
Substance Use Disorder (SUD)
Substance use disorders refer to a person’s use of alcohol or drugs in any way that causes problems in his or her life. These problems can be physical, emotional, social, occupational, or financial. Substance use occurs on a spectrum, ranging from milder cases in which a person may drink or use more than low risk consumption guidelines, to more severe cases, where a person may become physically addicted to a substance.
Substance use is caused by a variety of interrelated factors. A genetic predisposition puts people at higher risk of addiction. People often use substances to self-medicate painful emotional states, such as depression and anxiety, as well as stress. And people use substances because over-consumption is facilitated by their family and friends.
The Prevalence of Substance Use in the Workplace
Substance use is extremely prevalent in the workplace. Studies indicate that at any one time, approximately 16% of the workforce – or 1 in 6 employees – may be dealing with a substance use issue. In some industries, such as the construction, mining, film, and legal industries, the rate of substance use is even higher, approaching 20% – or 1 in 5 employees.
However, even these statistics likely understate the true extent of workplace substance use. First, they typically refer to the number of diagnosable substance use disorder (SUD) cases – that is, cases towards the more severe end of the spectrum. There are many more employees for whom a single instance of use may still significantly affect the workplace, such as those employed in safety-sensitive positions.
Second, as noted above, substance use has significantly increased during COVID. As many as 30% of employees report having increased their substance use during the pandemic. Together, these facts suggest that the number of employees with substance use issues in the workplace may have never been higher. A conservative estimate might be to assume that 25% of your employees – or 1 in 4 – may be struggling with some type of substance use issue.
The Impact of Substance Use In the Workplace
The impact of substance use on the workplace is significant. Studies have shown that individuals struggling with substance use issues are 3 to 10 times more likely to:
- Miss work
- Be late for work
- Have low or poor productivity
- Get into conflicts with employees and managers
- Reduce team morale
- Be in a job-related accident
- Damage equipment
- Contribute to an unsafe work environment
- Receive customer complaints
- File WCB claims
- Go on short-term disability
- Quit or leave work
How Substance Use Manifests in the Workplace
Although employees may at times tell you about their struggles with substances, or you may occasionally observe use or impairment on the job, this is not how substance use typically manifests in the workplace. Because of the significant stigma around substance use, most employees go to great lengths to hide it. However, despite their best efforts, most employees cannot effectively do this over time. Employees’ substance use at home might begin to affect their job performance at work. Thus, the most common way that you can spot an employee’s substance use is through a pattern of deteriorating job performance.
There are many ways that an employee’s substance use can negatively impact their job performance. These include:
- Mood swings
- Irritability and impatience
- Confusion, reduced concentration or forgetfulness
- Conflicts with others
- Withdrawal, isolation or avoidance
- Anxiety, fear or a lack of confidence
- Complaints of unexplained aches and pains
- Frequent physical illnesses (e.g., colds, flu, and headaches)
- High rate of accidents on or off the job
- Overreactions to negative feedback
- Missed deadlines
- Reduced quality of work
- Frequent mistakes
- Longer turnaround times
- Lowered productivity
- Difficulty recalling instructions
- Erratic work patterns
- Unkempt appearance or body odour
- Increased excuses for underperformance
- Frequent unscheduled short-term absences
- Frequent Monday or Friday absences
- Increased absences before and after holidays
- Frequent absences following paydays
- Peculiar and increasingly improbable explanations for absences
- Excessive tardiness
- Leaving early
- Continued absences from the work area (e.g., long coffee breaks)
How to Manage Substance Use in the Workplace
Given that substance use issues most often manifests as instances of deteriorating work performance, there are two things you must do to support employees with substance use issues. The first is to compassionately but assertively manage their job performance. The second is to ask if they have support and refer them for support if they don’t.
Compassionately Managing Job Performance
It is important to actively manage employees whose work performance is declining. Although you may be tempted to help an employee who is struggling by cutting them some slack or taking on or reassigning some of their workload, you will only be shielding them from the natural consequences of their actions. This makes it harder for them to change. Indeed, contrary to the popular belief that an individual must “hit bottom” before they can recover, the reverse is true. The earlier an employee intervenes on themself, the better the chances are that they can change.
There are several steps to effectively managing employees’ work performance. These include:
Step 1: Notice a pattern of deteriorating job performance
The first step is to notice when an employee’s job performance might be slipping. In this regard, it is important to look for evidence of deteriorating job performance – that is, performance which was once good, but is now problematic. In addition, look for a pattern of declining performance. Any of us can have an off day once in a while. What may most suggest possible substance use is a series of events over time.
Step 2: Document what you observe
The next step is to document instances of deteriorating work performance. In doing so, it is important to be as objective, factual, and verifiable as possible. This will help you to stay focused on job performance when you talk with the employee, clearly describe what changes are required, and have written documentation should further discipline be required.
Step 3: Consult with your own internal resources
The next step is to consult with your own internal resources, such as your manager and the human resources department. This will help to ensure that you comply with all applicable workplace health and safety policies, and that you know of all possible employer-sponsored wellness resources to which you may be able to refer the employee.
Step 4: Prepare for your meeting with the employee
The next step is to prepare for your meeting with the employee. It is advisable to schedule a formal time to have this meeting, rather than doing it on the fly. In addition, it is wise to hold the meeting in a private place and at a time when both you and the employee are unlikely to be uninterrupted and are feeling calm.
Step 5: Meet with the employee
The next step is to meet with the employee to address their work performance. Outline the specific instances of deteriorating job performance you have observed. Tell the employee that these instances are uncharacteristic, and that you are concerned about them. Ask if they’re okay and if there’s anything they want to talk about. If at that point, the employee discloses that she is dealing with a substance use issue or other personal problem, ask them if they have a support in place. If they don’t, approach the situation with compassion as you would with any health concern, and follow the steps below for referring them for support.
If they don’t disclose any issues, then get input from the employee about their job performance. Ask for their ideas about how performance can be improved. Based upon your mutual understanding, outline your expectations for improved performance, the timeframe over which these improvements are expected, and the consequences if these improvements are not made. Set a date to review progress. And finally, assure them that they are a valued employee and that you want to see them succeed.
Referring Employees for Substance Use Support
After you have addressed the employee’s work performance, the next step is to refer them for support.
Support for Employees with Substance Use Issues
There are many types of treatment programs that provide support to employees with substance use issues. These include (a) outpatient programs, in which employees meet with a substance use therapist once per week, (b) intensive outpatient programs, which employees may attend for several hours per day for a number of weeks, and (c) residential programs or “rehabs,” where employees may stay for a month or more.
While these programs can be helpful, substance use treatment has historically been subject to two big misconceptions. The first is the notion that the only alternative for individuals who use substances is complete and lifelong abstinence from the substance. However, research demonstrates that many such individuals can develop the ability to consume substances in a controlled manner. In addition, the idea that abstinence is the only realistic treatment goal for substance use has been one of the biggest deterrents to many individuals seeking support in the first place. For these reasons, for many individuals, the goal of harm reduction – reducing one’s consumption to the greatest extent possible – is a more realistic and desirable one.
The second misconception is that the most appropriate type of treatment for most individuals with substance use issues is residential “rehab.” However, many individuals do well, and in some cases better, in less intensive and restrictive programs. In addition, the idea that the only treatment alternative to substance use is a program which requires individuals to leave their jobs, disrupt their lives, and pay tens of thousands of dollars, has also been one of the most significant obstacles to individuals deciding to seek help in the first place.
Substance use treatment programs like ALAViDA address all of these misconceptions. ALAViDA, part of the LifeSpeak Inc. (TSX: LSPK) family of companies, is a comprehensive internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy (iCBT) service and virtual care provider focused on the science of substance use management. We offer a one-stop-shop approach for any level of substance use disorder – alcohol and drugs – from mild, to moderate and severe. ALAViDA connects members with a personal care team to deliver confidential care right to their smartphones. We support members to work towards abstinence or moderation, as desired and clinically appropriate, and help them reach their goals. There is no requirement that individuals leave work or otherwise disrupt their lives. And ALAViDA costs a fraction of traditional “rehabs.”
How to Refer an Employee for Support
Making a referral for support simply means giving the employee information about services that could potentially be helpful to him or her. You do not need to diagnose what kind of personal issue the employee may be struggling with, or even whether they are struggling with one at all. You are simply giving employees resources they can use should they find it helpful. Ultimately, what matters to you is that the employee improves their job performance. How specifically they do this is up to the employee.
If your company has an employee and family assistance program (EFAP), consider referring the employee there. An EFAP is a service that provides free, confidential assistance to employees for personal and family concerns. If you know or suspect that the employee might be dealing with a substance use issue, consider referring them to ALAViDA.
Here’s a sample script of what you could say:
“I know that when employees are experiencing personal and family problems, those problems can sometimes begin to affect their work performance. I don’t know if you’re dealing with any such problems, and frankly, I don’t need to know, but I just wanted to tell you that if you are, our organization has resources to help. First, we have an employee and family assistance program, which can provide you with support around a variety of personal and family concerns. And if you are dealing with a substance use issue, we have also contracted with ALAViDA, a digital mental health company that provides services to help employees with these issues. The service is provided solely by ALAViDA. It’s confidential, and they do not share any information with us. Both of these services are no or low-cost and completely confidential. Here’s some information on both the EFAP and ALAViDA. I hope you’ll consider using them if they would be helpful.”
At the end of the day, it is important to note that as a manager, you wield a unique power to influence your employees’ lives for the better. Research shows that while individuals may continue to use substances even though their health is harmed, their relationships are damaged, and they suffer financial problems, when they perceive that their jobs are in jeopardy, they often become motivated to seek help. This means that of all the people in your employees’ lives, you are in one of the best positions to help them to change, by assertively managing their job performance and encouraging them to get help. It’s good for your organization, good for you as a manager, and good for your employee. Here at ALAViDA, we call that a triple-win.