Out of the shadows: Discussing employee addiction in the pandemic aftermath

A woman stares at a glass of red wine, trying to manage her addiction.

Addiction is a prevalent but often hidden aspect of mental health.

And yet addiction can cost your business in lost productivity and health care claims, and like many other mental health issues, it can be challenging to address when stigma prevents people from seeking help. Having the right tools in place is essential to keeping your employees healthy and your business running smoothly—especially in the wake of the pandemic.

A perfect storm

“There’s sort of a perfect storm of factors that we know increase drug use,” William Stoops, a professor of behavioral science, psychiatry, and psychology at the University of Kentucky, told the American Psychological Association (APA). “People are more stressed and isolated, so they make unhealthy decisions, including drinking more and taking drugs.”

In a survey conducted by OneLogin in March and April 2021 of hundreds of tech leaders, 24% admitted they have self-medicated with alcohol or drugs to cope with heightened stress due to the pandemic. Data from the CDC supports this finding. It shows that in June 2020, 13% of Americans had started or increased substance use to cope with the pandemic. In December 2020, the American Medical Association reported opioid-related deaths had increased in 40 US states.

It’s tempting to believe addiction doesn’t impact most businesses. But according to the Addiction Center, 70% of Americans struggling with substance use are employed. Before the pandemic, drug abuse and addiction cost US employers US$81 billion per year through absenteeism, accidents, lost productivity—and healthcare. As a blog post by ALAViDA noted, alcohol consumption is linked to cancers of the throat, larynx esophagus, liver, colon, and rectum. For women who consume at least two drinks a day, the risk of breast cancer is up to 50 percent higher than for non-drinkers.

As you welcome employees back to the office, previously hidden issues around addiction may begin to surface. In hybrid or remote arrangements, where people have greater access to drugs and alcohol and can engage with them more easily during the workday, signs of addiction may remain hard to identify, and issues could continue to grow.

Regardless of your work arrangement, addiction can harm employee wellbeing, workplace culture, and productivity. Having the right tools in place to manage addiction can save your organization money and promote happier healthier lives.

Creating healthier workplaces

Here are three helpful ideas from LifeSpeak experts that can support anyone as they recognize substance use challenges, begin seeking treatment for themselves, or help others do so. Each idea represents a small part of a broader LifeSpeak micro-learning module—a starting place for workplaces seeking to de-stigmatize addiction and reduce its negative impact on their organization.

  1. Understand that overcoming substance use means finding new ways to be happy

In his Lifespeak What are Addictions – How do You Know if You Have One micro-learning video, Dr. Roy Baker defines addiction as a sick relationship with something we do to make ourselves feel better—sick because we don’t stop doing it even when it hurts us. He says addiction isn’t about how much we drink or how often we use a drug but more about control. Do we lose it once we start?

Addiction involves three Cs: loss of control, negative consequences, and compulsion. A person with addiction either has an innate or acquired inability to soothe or comfort themselves and so they rely on a substance or behavior to soothe themselves, often to their detriment. And with the stress of the past 18 months, it’s not surprising that our capacity for what we can handle has been pushed to the limit. When we overcome addiction, we don’t just stop using a drug or substance; we find ways to be happy without it.

  1. Addiction doesn’t always look the same, and treatment doesn’t either.

In his LifeSpeak video Recognizing Signs of Addiction Issues in a Co-Worker, Dr. Adi Jaffe says our ideas about addiction are often mistaken. Lots of stereotypes exist—that alcohol addiction leads people to look disheveled or become homeless, for example—and these stereotypes just aren’t true. Instead, Jaffe says we should look at relatively extreme changes in behavior. These could include:

  • increased conflict and irritability
  • increased attendance problems
  • increased swings in energy levels
  • sudden and significant money problems
  • and legal issues

Addiction is a really difficult topic for people to discuss, especially with co-workers. Jaffe recommends setting up a relatively anonymous system for employees to reach out to someone outside their work chain and get the help they need. From there, the most effective path is to present a menu of options and let each person pick something they can do on their own.

No single treatment option is right for everyone.  As Dr. Jaffe says, residential treatment is best for someone who is in physical danger if they stop using a substance, while general outpatient treatment is better for more mild cases. In the US, he says SAMHSA is a good place to start looking at treatment options, and professional referrals are great too.  In the end, Jaffe says what’s important is “finding the right fit between the client, and someone they can hear, trust and pay attention to, and start getting help.”

  1. Remember, we can be gentle with ourselves right now.

In his LifeSpeak blog, Managing Addictions during the COVID-19 Crisis, Dr. Adi Jaffe goes on to say we can give ourselves a little leeway during the pandemic if we’re engaging in addictive behaviors more than we normally would. We’re dealing with an unprecedented time; people have been isolated, bored and coping with job loss and, therefore, incredible levels of helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, and stress. We don’t need to believe that we will continue doing everything we’re doing now once we’re able to live more normally. At the same time, he warns that we shouldn’t let ourselves fall too far into bad habits. Diluting drinks with water, smoking on alternate days, and stepping away from our computer screens can help us return to healthier behaviors when the crisis is over.

What’s next?

These ideas are a starting point to help you support employees as they understand, recognize and begin to face addiction. If you’re already a LifeSpeak client, you can direct your employees to the addiction micro-learning modules on the LifeSpeak platform. If you aren’t a Lifespeak client but would like to learn more, book your demo today.

Employers who want to provide further addiction support should also consider ALAViDA.

ALAViDA’s digital platform offers confidential, on-demand substance use support and self-guided resources available anytime and anywhere. Employees can easily access substance use disorder physicians, medication-assisted therapy, personalized treatment plans, and more all through the privacy of their smartphones. And it works—95% of employees engaged with ALAViDA continue to work while receiving treatment, and 86% reduce substance use.

If you’re a LifeSpeak client in Canada, ask your Account Manager about ALAViDA today or read more about the service here.


Doug Berkowitz has overall responsibility for LifeSpeak’s information technology and development, human resources, infrastructure, legal, and marketing. Most recently, Mr. Berkowitz was the VP/General Manager for a large portfolio of clients at marketing services firm Epsilon Data Management, LLC, when it was an affiliate of Alliance Data Systems Corporation. Mr. Berkowitz holds a BS in Finance, with Honors, from the College of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.