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How Employers Can Help Prevent Overdose and Suicide as Pandemic Waxes and Wanes

Written by: Dr. Deni Carise, Ph.D.

Suffice to say, many individuals are struggling during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is facing challenges, from the social isolation of stay-home orders, to economic setbacks, and uncertainty about the future – it can be overwhelming. Coping “tips” for people who may be suffering abound on the internet, from upbeat articles about pushing through the challenges, to dangerous memes jokingly justifying excessive day-drinking habits.  Additionally, most employers are facing the reality that they are operating under a new set of circumstances and responsibilities that have vastly changed their operations. This includes supporting immense numbers of employees who are working remotely. Add the stress of isolation and living with uncertainty to working remotely and we have a breeding ground for all manner of medical, behavioral, psychological, and social problems.  It is also a catalyst for the recurrence of substance use disorder (my preferred phrase to “relapse”) even among those with significant time in recovery.

There has been an 891% increase in substance abuse and mental health inquiries to the SAMHSA crisis hotline. According to market research firm Nielsen, U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages surged 55% in mid-March and online alcohol sales were up 441% in early April. The World Health Organization has specifically warned about alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic, cautioning that it can intensify health vulnerabilities, risk-taking behavior, violence, and mental health and substance abuse issues.

People who didn’t used to drink alcohol regularly or in excess now find it all too easy to drink throughout the day under stay-home orders and with new and intensified stressors. A new study reports that about a third of people in the United States who are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic also reported drinking on the job. Half of the citizens in Virginia and Rhode Island recently reported doing so. And some people in recovery are succumbing to the stress, finding it easier to imbibe in secret with no one watching or wondering why they didn’t show up somewhere. We’re specifically seeing an increase in those with 6-12 months of solid recovery returning to alcohol or drug use.

Who has the opportunity to help people remain healthy and accountable when most aren’t physically leaving their homes these days? You guessed it: employers. Whether through Zoom-type calls and meetings, or in-person interactions with social distancing, employers may be the only ones actually seeing certain individuals right now. It is therefore vital that they are provided the resources to support their workforce during this difficult time. Alcoholism does not discriminate and can affect anyone, even the best employees.

Whether your employees are working from home or you are an essential service that still requires they show up in-person, everyone is under increased stress. Here are some tips for employers to make a difference:

  • Ensure that your company has strong health benefits and confidential EAP services. Under the Parity Act, insurers should cover mental health and substance abuse treatment options.
  • Educate your employees about the warning signs of alcohol and other substance use disorders , for their own wellbeing and those they care about.
  • Provide your employees with resources for getting help and support for mental health and substance abuse issues. There are many free online options, including virtual AA and NA meetings. In addition, it’s important to know that treatment programs are not closed. With an estimated 150,000 opioid overdose deaths in the past 3 years, they are an essential, life-saving business and have with help available 24/7.
  • Encourage your employees to seek out positive outlets to relieve stress such as yoga, meditation, or exercise as an alternative to substance use.
  • Check in regularly with your employees to reduce feelings of isolation and, if there is a potential problem, address it with compassion and understanding, not with accusation or judgment. Realize that we are all under increased stress and that addiction is a treatable disease.

News headlines shout that 75,000 Americans are at risk of dying from overdose or suicide due to the coronavirus pandemic. These are called “deaths of despair” and they are the result of economic downturns, increased depression, alcohol and other drug use, the stress caused by isolation, and lack of a definitive end date for the pandemic. It is true that we face uncertainty, but now more than ever, we can and should focus on what is within our control. Helping our workforce through this very challenging and stressful time can significantly improve our future. Paying attention to our employees’ needs, even those on furlough, is essential. Great employers will make all the difference as we continue to address life threatening issues that are resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Deni Carise is the Chief Science Officer at Recovery Centers of America and an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania

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