May 20, 2022

How to Destigmatize Mental Health and Substance Misuse in the Workplace

Workplace mental health

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have started to prioritize employee mental health in the workplace. Managers and executives can help destigmatize topics like stress, anxiety, substance misuse, and suicidal ideation by providing resources and programs that support struggling employees. In a recent webinar, speakers from Heritage CARES, National Safety Council, and Commonly Well shared best practices on how employers can best make an impact.

Meet the Speakers

EVP & General Manager of Heritage Health Solution Hamilton Baiden
Hamilton Baiden
CEO
Heritage CARES
Jenny Burke
VP, Impairment Practice
National Safety Council
David Whitesock
CEO and Founder
Commonly Well

How Big is the Problem?

The pandemic has had a massive impact on mental health. Data shows that about half of those who experience mental health issues also experience Substance User Disorder (SUD) and vice versa. Still, employers may think they don’t have a problem with substance misuse or mental health at their workplace because they don’t see any obvious signs. The stats unfortunately tell a different story:

  • 46% of Americans have either struggled with substance misuse or they have a loved one struggling with it (Gallup)
  • 26% of the workforce goes home to addiction – a 44% increase since the last time Gallup ran the poll before the COVID-19 pandemic (Gallup)
  • Family members of addicts are five times more likely to be hospitalized in a given year (Snyder Health Institute)
  • 75% of workplaces are impacted by opioid use (National Safety Council)

How to Recognize Workplace Impairment

75% of people with a Substance Use Disorder are in the workforce. It is not the person living underneath the bridge that’s homeless that doesn’t have a job. Yes it absolutely affects those individuals, but the majority of people who struggle with this are in the workforce. They’re just like me and you.

Hamilton Baiden

Recognizing addiction in the workplace may be difficult: there may or may not be obvious physical or emotional signs. “I was a functional alcoholic,” Hamilton Baiden notes. “I was a successful businessperson. When I got sober, I cannot tell you how many people came to me and said, ‘You’re not an alcoholic. We had no idea.’ ”

Despite there often being no noticeable changes in emotional or physical behavior that indicate mental health or substance misuse issues, Baiden provided examples of what managers can look out for to help identify workplace impairment.

Signs of physical impairment include:

  • Tremors
  • Odor of alcohol or drugs
  • Unsteady gait or lack of coordination
  • Loss of consciousness

Signs of cognitive impairment include:

  • Inappropriate verbal or emotional responses
  • Memory loss
  • Distraction
  • Isolation

Signs of performance impairment include:

  • Often calling out sick
  • Unexplained tardiness, early departure, extended breaks
  • Decrease of concentration
  • Loss of ability to do a skilled task

The Impact on the Workforce

Employers absolutely have a role in supporting those employees…because the way that they get help is through their employers and through the benefits coverage.

Jenny Burke

Employers should care about their employees’ wellbeing because it’s the right thing to do – people should care about other people. Not all employers or executives may agree, so Jenny Burke shared the impact a struggling employee can have on an organization: Employees with mental health or substance misuse issues – either personal via a family member – lose 10% of their hours of productivity each week.

In fact, employers spend, on average, $15,000 more each year on employees who experience mental distress due to missed workdays, increased healthcare costs, and turnover.

The good news is that investing in employee wellbeing not only helps people but saves organizations money. For every $1 invested by an employer in mental health treatment, they see a $4 return in improved health and productivity. Additionally, every employee who recovers from an SUD saves the company over $8500.

A Comprehensive Approach to Helping Employees

Burke offered some best practices for employers to change their workforce to better support employees struggling with mental health or substance misuse issues. She encouraged employers to establish a drug policy in order to set the expectation that they are a substance-free workplace. Employers can also provide employee education and have conversations around these issues in order to destigmatize them. Burke advised that employers regularly and simply communicate the resources they have available to support employees to increase awareness and engagement.

To achieve success, Burke said employers must determine the levels of employee engagement they want with these programs as well as what specific outcomes they want to be able to measure. Also, she encouraged employers to update their programs and policies annually to help them identify gaps in their Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).

Measuring and Maintaining Success

When we get into the workplace … we want to be able to see those underlying elements that can lead to impairment issues, that can lead to substance misuse issues, that can lead to other behavioral challenges that then impact output and productivity in the workplace.

David Whitesock

How do employers know if their programs are a success? David Whitesock encouraged employers to determine how to gather data on employee social, environmental, and behavioral wellbeing over time. For example, employers may want to focus on programs that provide metrics on opioid reduction or relapse prevention, reduction in lost work time, or adherence to a care management plan.

To sustain success and keep their wellbeing programs engaging, employers can use metrics-gathering tools like Whitesock’s Resiliency Capital Index (RCI) tool. RCI gathers data about a specific group of people and returns a big-picture view of how resilient the population is, meaning how likely they are to return to a somewhat normal operating mode after an event (e.g., a death in the family). The RCI tool is voluntary – each individual signs up for it – and confidential – it does not report specific personal results to their employers.

With high-level information such as that provided by the RCI tool, employers can start to tailor their wellbeing programs towards their employees’ needs – for example, by sending timely and topical communications – thereby increasing engagement and improving outcomes.

Takeaways: Best Practices for Employees

Baiden closed by sharing some specific best practices employers can implement to start helping employees, including:

  • Digital Tools: About half the people who course correct as heavy substance users – before it develops into addiction – change their behaviors on their own. Further, not everyone who struggles with addiction needs to go to inpatient treatment – in fact only 13% of people in recovery receive inpatient treatment. Digital tools are an excellent, always-on solution to help people get support when they need it.
  • Care Management Platforms: These services remove the barrier between people who need help and the providers who offer it. They let people directly get the additional help they need without having to go through HR or an EAP.
  • High-Touch Personal Support: Traditional treatment waits for the person struggling to come forward when they’re ready for it and requires them to do all the work. Personal concierge support removes that onus from the individual and starts education and support before the person hits rock bottom.
  • Family Support: If family and loved ones of a person struggling with substance misuse or mental health issues supports their healing process, they have a better chance of staying on the road to recovery.

The webinar “Collaborative Efforts to Manage and Destigmatize Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) and Mental Health Among the Workforce” is now available on-demand.

Heritage CARES leverages education, care management, and peer coaching to support individuals struggling with stress, anxiety, substance misuse, or suicidal ideation. Our program supports employers, treatment centers, first responders, and jails and prisons with confidential, evidence-based resources that focus on providing a safe and anonymous way for individuals and their family members to engage on substance misuse and addiction in a meaningful way.