How the Pandemic Has Affected Drug Use and Alcoholism in the Workplace

From the personal to the political, Covid-19 has triggered numerous crises around the world. The pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on an unprecedented number of people; unleashing and amplifying simultaneous stressors on individuals’ mental health. 

As the pandemic swept across the globe, it induced a considerable degree of fear, worry and concern in the population at large. This stress has negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for those already suffering. Research consistently demonstrates that individuals who suffer from trauma or mental health issues are also more likely to have problems with substance misuse. The two are frequently linked as co-occurring disorders; with one often manifesting as a symptom of the other.

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An increase in alcohol and drug use during the pandemic

As the UK went into lockdown, many people reacted to the closure of pubs and restaurants by stocking up at home. Alongside store cupboard food, alcohol disappeared from supermarket shelves. As has previously been known, extreme societal changes are often reflected in patterns of alcohol and substance consumption. In bad times, misuse often gets worse. Statistics report that many people started or increased substance use as a way of coping with the stress and emotions induced by Covid-19. As the pandemic has continued and increasing numbers of people are having to deal with the loss of a loved one, this situation has only worsened.

Stressors for substance misuse

There are several reasons that may explain why the pandemic has exacerbated this rise in substance misuse. As a necessary response to the virus and attempt to halt its spread, the UK was effectively shut down. The lockdown strategy aimed to reduce the opportunity for transmission by limiting social interaction. By its very nature, lockdown brought social isolation to many people and in particular, to those living alone. 

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Loneliness

A consequence of isolation can be a feeling of loneliness. While many people may have experienced loneliness pre-pandemic, many more, including working-age adults, would have experienced it as a direct consequence. Workplace and educational institution closures enforced home working and studying. This measure delivered not merely abrupt and unsettling changes to normal routines but also vastly reduced the opportunity to interact with other people. 

Loss of coping mechanisms

Social interaction is essential for robust mental health. During lockdown, people were stripped of their normal coping mechanisms and resilience-building strategies. Being unable to exercise at the gym, see friends or family and interact with work colleagues left many people floundering without a sense of purpose. This lack of purpose can have the knock-on effect of exacerbating feelings of depression, anxiety or low self-esteem; all of which can lead to self-medication as a coping strategy and greater instances of substance misuse. 

Lack of intervention from friends and family

While isolation may lead to greater reliance on drugs and alcohol, it can also enable an existing issue to progress unchallenged. Being isolated makes it easier to hide a problem and allow the effects of addiction to go unnoticed. Friends, family and colleagues, who might otherwise intervene, are at an enforced distance and less likely to pick up on worrying changes in behaviour or performance. 

Lack of treatment facilities available

During the early stages of the pandemic and even currently, many treatment facilities had to shut down or heavily restrict their in-person services. For those with existing dependencies or substance use disorders, accessing help for addiction issues has been severely compromised. Services stretched at the best of times are currently being pushed to breaking point.

For those without the technology required to access virtual services, a downward spiral may have been inevitable. Many addicts benefit from the intimacy of group meetings; the impact of which can be lost in a virtual setting. While some may find virtual services effective, engagement needs to be on a voluntary basis rather than enforced by circumstance. As a consequence, many addicts may have disengaged from treatment and succumbed to the downward spiral of substance misuse.

Supporting employees in the post-pandemic return to work

The economic impact of lockdown has had far-reaching consequences; with vast numbers losing their livelihoods or being furloughed. For many, work plays a vital role beyond financial benefit. It provides a sense of purpose, thereby boosting mental wellbeing. For those still in employment, the fear of losing work is habitual. Dealing with a potentially reduced income and job insecurity is distressing and may manifest in substance use as a means of coping. 

A post-Covid rise in mental health and substance abuse problems poses a real threat in the workplace. As such, it’s important for employers to prepare for a potential increase in substance misuse. As emotionally fragile employees return to the workplace after months of lockdown, managers, with support from their leadership teams, should work to stem the substance addiction tide. 

Substance misuse poses a serious threat to workplace safety. Employers have a duty of care to their employees and should monitor the situation as people return to work to ensure the environment is safe for everyone. Substance misuse costs organisations vast sums of money; particularly in terms of sickness, absenteeism and loss of productivity. It’s important that clear boundaries are implemented and work performance expectations are in place. While substance abuse in the workplace cannot be tolerated, it should not automatically result in dismissal. Organisations should strive to balance the smooth running of operations with compassion and support for employees.

Substance abuse should be on the radar at all times; not just during a pandemic. Keeping abreast of the issue is of paramount importance. It’s crucial for an employer to foster a work culture where people can talk about substance abuse without stigma and fear of reprisal. Employees may still be dealing with emotional issues related to Covid-19. As such, it’s important for the work culture to acknowledge potential problems and provide access to the right resources. 

One of the best ways to manage addiction in the workplace and particularly, post-pandemic, is to have a clear policy and set of procedures in place. Substance misuse should be treated in the same way as any other physical or mental health condition. Employees should be able to seek treatment and be supported by their employer in recovery and in the return to work.

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