The pandemic has created a perfect storm for those struggling with substance abuse issues. Not only has it isolated us from one another, but it has also frayed our coping skills. For those who are already vulnerable to substance abuse, these conditions may escalate such behaviors as binge drinking, day drinking, prescription drug misuse or use of illicit drugs.

Research suggests that the more time a person spends at home, the greater their risk for consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol. This risk is even greater for those already struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. During the early months of the pandemic, binge drinking by women increased by 41%, leading to more risky behaviors with negative consequences. Authorities speculate that people use alcohol to cope with depression, anxiety and boredom.

Similarly, drug use, which had been trending upward among the U.S. workforce, surged during the pandemic. By mid-2020, positive test results for cocaine surged 52% higher than at the same time a year earlier, while positive results for marijuana, amphetamine and opiate use increased 22%, 17% and 5% respectively.

Common warning signs
How do you know if your at-home drinking (or drug use) is becoming a problem? The following are warning signs that your behavior may have crossed the line:

  • If your usage has increased.
  • If you are preoccupied with your next drink or fix.
  • If your usage is taking the place of other activities.
  • If your usage is interfering with work.
  • If others have expressed concern.
  • If you find yourself defensive or secretive.

Clinical psychologist Seth Gillihan suggests developing other coping techniques instead of relying on alcohol or drug use. It’s also helpful to avoid drinking alone (or with heavy drinkers). Be honest and open with yourself and others. Maintain the important things in your life and incorporate non-drinking days into your routine.

Tips for managers

Contact your employee assistance program (EAP) for free, confidential help in assessing and connecting with appropriate support. Also promote SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), which provides free and confidential treatment referrals and information (in English and Spanish) 24/7/365 to support individuals and families with substance use issues. There are many other online resources as well.

If you are a leader in your organization, it is imperative that you are aware of this critical issue and that you are prepared and equipped to deal with it, especially during this ongoing crisis. According to a survey by, one in three Americans reports that they are more likely to drink or use drugs when working from home.

We know that substance misuse and addiction not only impact an organization’s bottom line, but also create a toxic culture and harm employee morale. With the increased challenges of remote work and the accompanying financial, family, mental and emotional stressors, employees who have a history of addiction are at a higher risk for relapse. Many others may find themselves crossing the line into unhealthy use.

Despite the reality that many employees are working remotely or in the field relatively isolated from their colleagues or supervisors, the guidelines for recognizing substance misuse are essentially the same. Watch for indicators of potential abuse. These can include declining work performance, taking excessive time off, “disappearing” from the radar for blocks of time or never turning on their camera for virtual meetings. To make it easier to spot these issues, have employees turn on their cameras regularly. This also helps create a greater sense of connection and reduces the sense of isolation.

Keep in mind that these behaviors by themselves do not indicate a substance abuse issue. However, if you notice several of these indicators or see a significant change in an employee over a period of months, these are warning signs that an employee may need help.

Remember, your job is not to diagnose or determine if an employee has a mental health or substance issue. Your job is to be aware of problematic workplace behaviors, address these behaviors through performance management and refer employees to the EAP through a suggested referral or a mandatory referral to resolve the personal issues that may be impacting their performance. Speak to an account manager to discuss referral options.

Here are some best practices your organization may want to consider:

  • Proactively communicate. Make substance abuse awareness part of your organization’s ongoing conversation, beginning with top leadership. This goes a long way toward reducing the stigma and gives employees permission to seek help without fear or shame.
  • Constantly promote resources, such as the EAP. To keep this benefit on your employees’ radar and increase its value and use, promote it through every available digital and physical channel. To highlight the value in using the EAP for substance-related issues or resources, share related flyers such as Face to the Face with Substance Abuse and What You Need to Know About Opioids, or resources such as safe drinking guidelines.
  • Train managers. Help managers and supervisors become confident advocates for their teams by training them to recognize substance issues and access support and resources. Supervisors on the front lines are in the best position to spot problems early and address them before negative consequences escalate for the employee and the organization.
  • Establish clear guidelines. Have a current drug and alcohol policy that outlines a dynamic path for addressing substance-related issues. Establish clear expectations regarding work productivity, accountability and behavior.
  • Develop supportive policies. Back up your policies with tangible benefits that support a healthy and thriving workforce. This may include flexible work schedules, EAP and other wellness benefits, childcare benefits, insurance plans and leave policies that support substance abuse treatment.
  • Intentionally connect. Managers and supervisors must make it a point to check in regularly with their team members to see how they’re doing. As Johann Hari says in his popular TedTalk, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s human connection.”

If we have learned anything from this pandemic and the isolation it has imposed, it is the importance of relationships and connection, including in the workplace.

To learn more about implementing best practices for preventing substance abuse in your workplace, contact your EAP account manager.