Employer Insights: Tackling the Rise of Substance Use in the Remote Workplace

In recent years, remote work arrangements have rapidly transformed how people work and live. Remote and hybrid models provide employees with greater flexibility and freedom, eliminating or significantly reducing daily commutes, and allowing for more work-life balance. Employers have also recognized the benefits, such as increased productivity and, in some cases, decreased overhead costs with a fully remote workforce. 

However, a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has shed light on an unexpected consequence – the emergence of daytime substance use. Twenty-seven million working-age Americans between 25 and 54 years old have a substance use disorder, reflecting a 23 percent increase compared to pre-pandemic times. 

Even for those without a substance use disorder, seemingly small acts like taking a hit of a joint or adding a splash of liquor to a cup of coffee to cope with the day can have significant consequences on employees’ overall health, productivity, and performance levels. 

Dr. Terri-Lynn MacKay, C. Psych, Mental Health Director at ALAViDA Substance Use, a product of LifeSpeak Inc., offers valuable insight into the concerning rise in substance use disorders among remote employees. She was recently featured in an article published by SHRM, shedding light on this topic. 

She says isolation is one of the main reasons for increased substance use among remote and hybrid workers.  

“Research is now showing that our relationships are the single greatest predictor of both wellbeing and longevity,” says Dr. MacKay. “While remote work provides many benefits, it does not provide the same level of real, textured, human connection that exists when you are physically present with another human being.” 

Dr. MacKay explains that remote employees engaging in daytime substance use can be attributed to various factors, including increased proximity to drugs and alcohol throughout the day, decreased awareness from others when not in the office, feelings of boredom, and the lack of social contact with coworkers. She says that the lines between work and home life have also blurred, creating an expectation for employees to be ultra-connected to virtual work. In addition to the impact of isolation, these factors collectively contribute to the increase of daytime substance use among remote workers.   

“For many people who use substances, the daily stressors have exceeded their repertoire of coping resources, so they are turning to alcohol or drugs to regulate negative emotions like sadness, loneliness, and feeling overwhelmed,” says Dr. MacKay. “We heard a lot about languishing during the pandemic, and many people felt this sense of being generally unwell. Substance use has the short-term effect of easing these uncomfortable emotions.” 

The prevalence of remote work is expected to continue. Since the peak of the pandemic-era lockdowns, The Wall Street Journal notes office occupancy rates have been on a steady incline; however, they are still hovering around 50 percent occupancy as people from different generations are pushing back and demanding that remote work become a permanent arrangement for them.  

What can managers do to support remote team members?  

Actively but compassionately manage job performance

Dr. MacKay says it is not a manager’s job to know why an employee’s work performance is suffering. Someone could be dealing with other personal factors such as a medical diagnosis, a sick child, a separation, a mental illness, financial troubles, a move, or otherwise. And similarly, employees should not need to disclose exactly why they are struggling but should feel comfortable enough to talk to their managers when they are struggling and may need extra support.   

What employers can do is work to destigmatize mental health and substance use struggles, and work to compassionately manage job performance rather than trying to understand why someone’s work might be suffering. 

Dr. MacKay notes that employers should understand that substance use issues are not a moral failing, but a coping response to negative emotions.  

“When employers understand this distinction, it removes the dichotomy of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – we are all just trying to feel okay,” says Dr. MacKay 

Dr. MacKay also says employers are encouraged to engage in open conversations with employees about specific behaviors they have noticed. By expressing concern and offering support, such as saying, “I’ve observed that you seem distant in meetings and leave early quite often — is there something going on where I could assist?” employers can create a safe environment for dialogue.   

In cases where an employee self-discloses a substance use struggle, employers should treat them with compassion and empathy, just as they would for any other health or mental health issue. This approach helps reduce stigma and encourages employees to seek help and utilize resources provided through their benefits. 

Finally, establishing work structures that accommodate the integration of personal and work lives can significantly contribute to employee wellbeing. Implementing policies such as mental health days, time off for appointments, and flexible work weeks demonstrates an understanding of the importance of work-life balance. Personal struggles can impact work performance for everyone at some point. An organization that prioritizes employee wellness fosters healthier employees and enhances job satisfaction and productivity. 

Offer substance use support and wellbeing resources  

Employers can take proactive steps to ensure that employees, especially those working remotely, are aware of the resources available to them. In the past, resources or offers of help often fell to only the most severe cases (for example, people with substance use disorders or mental health struggles requiring time off work or clinical treatment.)  

Substance use falls on a spectrum, and it’s important to note that even low consumption levels, particularly during the daytime, can disrupt work performance. Adopting a more comprehensive approach to support employees entails offering preventative resources such as education, coaching, therapy, and training opportunities. This helps address immediate needs and equips employees with tools and resources to prevent or mitigate potential challenges before they escalate. It demonstrates a proactive and holistic stance towards employee support, further enhancing the overall wellbeing and success of individuals within the organization. 

The increasing prevalence of remote work has amplified the importance of providing this kind of support, as evidenced by the growing rates of substance use among remote employees.  

By providing various levels of resources through corporate benefits, employees can confidentially access the support they require, tailored to their specific needs. This empowers individuals to seek assistance without fear of judgment or breach of privacy, ultimately contributing to their overall health and job satisfaction. 

A great way to do this is to provide employees access to wellbeing platforms to address specific needs. ALAViDA Substance Use provides members with on-demand and confidential support, right from their smartphones. If an employee struggles with drugs or alcohol, they can access help from this evidence-based solution created by leading substance use experts and coaches. Employees access ALAViDA through the TRAiL, a secure platform where they can receive personalized support from a proactive care team, tracking and awareness tools, and iCBT modules (internet-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.)  

Research has also shown a correlation between substance use issues and mental health disorders. LifeSpeak Mental Health & Resilience, a product of LifeSpeak Inc., is a leading mental health resource with thousands of expert-led content and micro-learning modules in a wide range of topics, including mental health, resilience, and mindfulness.  

By implementing these solutions and others that support whole-person wellbeing – such as Wellbeats Wellness and Torchlight Parenting and Caregiving – employers can empower their remote employees to excel in their work-from-home environments and personal lives. 

Take the preventative approach to employee wellness and substance use management  

Prevention is vital to mitigating costly substance use disorders (SUDs) among employees. In 2018, an economic evaluation of 162 million non–Medicare eligible enrollees with employer-sponsored health insurance revealed that 2.3 million had a SUD diagnosis. Alcohol-related disorders cost $10.2 billion (about $31 per person in the US), while opioid-related conditions cost $7.3 billion (about $22 per person in the US). 

The study further revealed an annual medical expenditure of $15,640 per affected enrollee, resulting in a total cost of $35.3 billion (approximately $110 per person in the US). 

These startling findings emphasize the role that employers and health plans can have in helping employees and their family members struggling with substance use. Implementing preventive measures and strategies is crucial, as they not only aid in mitigating the significant financial burden associated with SUD-related medical expenses but also contribute to overall employee wellbeing.  

In addition to offering confidential support to employees, ALAViDA Substance Use offers resources such as extensive onboarding and a comprehensive Substance Use Training Hub, to help organizations confidently destigmatize, discuss, and manage substance use issues in their workplace.   

Remote and hybrid working conditions have undoubtedly enhanced the work-life balance for many individuals across various industries. However, the escalating issue of substance use during work hours highlights the need for employers to address this concern proactively. It is essential for employers to provide employees with the necessary resources and support to effectively tackle this issue, empowering their remote workforce to maintain productivity, wellbeing, and a healthy work-life balance.  

Contact us today to learn more about ALAViDA Substance Use and our comprehensive suite of solutions.