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Apr 18, 2022
COVID-Accelerated Alcohol Misuse is Impacting the American Workforce

Business success starts with a happy and healthy workforce. 

This sentiment has only grown in importance over the last two years, as the COVID-19 pandemic further elevates behavioral health challenges like stress, anxiety, and depression in the workforce. Employers that don’t proactively address the health and well-being of their workforce risk reduced productivity and presentism, higher employee turnover, and eroding business results.

Indeed, the mental health and well-being of Americans has truly been tested throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. At present, one in four Americans has struggled with depression since the pandemic started; 47% feel lonelier due to social isolation and fewer social interactions; 30% have developed generalized anxiety disorders; and two times more Americans said they considered suicide in 2020 than they did in 2018.

These stresses and strains of the pandemic have also had an impact on substance use. In fact, today about 49% of the U.S. workforce has either an alcohol or substance misuse problem, according to research conducted by Versta on behalf of The Standard. Additionally, of the 49% of workers who report struggling with addiction, the number reporting lower productivity or missed work because of it has nearly doubled from before the pandemic. Alcohol remains the most common substance misused by workers, per the research. According to a separate study, nearly 60% of those surveyed reported an increase in drinking during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Unfortunately, only 7% of people suffering from alcohol misuse seek treatment.

“People all over the country are struggling with their mental health due to isolation, economic uncertainty, and more, which we know are all factors contributing to the acceleration of alcohol misuse,” said Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer of behavioral health at Evernorth, Cigna Corporation’s health services business. “It’s having a negative impact on the American workforce. It has never been more important or crucial for employers to destigmatize behavioral health issues such as depression, stress and anxiety. We all need to do our part to give people the space and confidence to seek help.”

Below we look at some of the ways employers can help to destigmatize mental health in the workplace and make the space for people with an alcohol or drug misuse problem to come forward and ask for help.

1. Destigmatizing Mental Health and Addiction in the Workplace

More than one in four adults living with serious mental health problems also have a substance use problem, drawing a clear connection between mental health issues and drug and alcohol use. Destigmatizing mental illness in the workplace could encourage people to come forward and get help early on for their issues, which could potentially prevent substance misuse for some individuals.

According to Evernorth’s Dr. Nemecek, there are some easy steps that employers can make to destigmatize mental health and encourage people to get the help they need. For example, making it OK to take a mental health day, and encouraging leadership to talk about their own mental health challenges could go a long way.

In terms of removing stigma around addiction, specifically, Dr. Nemecek said that “addiction is a disease just like diabetes or cancer in the sense that there isn’t a cure for it, and it needs to be managed for a lifetime. The sooner we can destigmatize addiction the better chance we have of getting people to seek treatment and ultimately recover.”

2. Build Awareness Around the Resources that are Already Available to Employees

For people who get insurance from their employers, chances are substance use disorder resources exist as part of the health plan.

For example, Cigna health plan customers (in some states), who receive health coverage through their employers have access to a digital platform called Monument, which was built specifically for people who would like to change their relationship with alcohol. Monument provides a clinically rigorous evidence-based treatment program, entirely virtually. The confidential platform connects people to options for specialized psychotherapy, physician-prescribed medications to treat alcohol use disorder, and peer support.

Cigna also provides free seminars and other resources on substance use, which deep dive into topics such as addiction and the brain, mindfulness and substance abuse, the stigma of addiction, and more – to help anyone who wants to learn more about substance use disorders and recovery.

3. Train People Leaders on Dealing With Addiction in the Workplace

It is estimated that drug and alcohol misuse costs American companies approximately $81 billion every year. Training managers and senior leaders to recognize physical, behavioral and emotional signs of substance abuse will also be key, Dr. Nemecek said, adding that while leaders may not be able to cure a substance use disorder, they could provide support and guide people to get competent help.

“Many people are able to hide their addictions at work, especially now with COVID-19 and so many of us working from home,” Dr. Nemecek said. “But substance misuse can still negatively impact a company since it impacts productivity, absenteeism, health care costs, and safety.”

According to The Addiction Center, some telltale signs of workplace addiction include:

  • Openly talking about money problems
  • A decline in personal appearance or hygiene
  • Complaints of failing relationships at home
  • Taking time off for vague illnesses or family problems

 “The onus is on employers to educate the workforce on recognizing signs of addiction,” Dr. Nemecek said. “There are a lot of resources out there to help treat drug and alcohol addiction. The first step toward recovery is recognizing there is a problem.”

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