Substance use disorders (SUDs) and their causes are as diverse as the people who experience them. Stigma surrounds SUDs, as with many other chronic behavioral health conditions. This stigma often keeps people from getting the treatment they need to break unhealthy habits.
Employers can help by increasing SUD awareness, sharing health benefits information, and providing the time and space for recovery.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines SUD as a “treatable mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior.” The disorder is hallmarked by a lack of control when using alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications.
Some people have SUD along with other behavioral health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. One does not necessarily cause the other. However, there may be common lifestyle, environmental, or genetic risk factors that impact both disorders. Chronic physical pain can also lead to SUD, especially in the case of opioid misuse.
People experienced more mental health and SUD issues due to isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, says Melissa Perry, MD, medical director of behavioral health. “People had less access to treatment and healthy outlets like going to the gym or church or seeing family or friends.”
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) data confirms Dr. Perry’s assessment. More than 40 million Americans 12 and older experienced an SUD during 2020, and 80% of these individuals did not receive treatment. The negative impacts reached into homes, workplaces, and communities across the nation and continue to affect individuals and families today.
Yet, many Americans lack awareness when it comes to acknowledging the extent of the problem. “Substance use disorders can affect anyone regardless of gender, age, race, income, or location,” says Dr. Perry. “Increased awareness can lead to more appropriate care and greater harm reduction.”
Some of your employees or their family members are probably living with SUDs right now. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 70% of individuals with an SUD are employed.
Substance use disorders can manifest in several ways. An employee may arrive at work late or unkempt. They may have unexpected and excessive absences or make mistakes during simple tasks. Depending on the workplace, the employee may also be a danger to themselves or others.
Helping an employee recover can save thousands of dollars in lost productivity. The NSC also states that employer-centered treatment programs are more effective than interventions by friends and family. Effective options for helping employees get what they need to be healthy and productive include:
Let your employees know what treatment options are available through their health insurance benefits. “Health plans can help reduce stigma and provide screening measures for early identification, mitigation, and treatment,” explains Dr. Perry. “Having access to early treatment is extremely important.”
SAMHSA encourages employers to provide a full-service employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP can provide confidential help for substance misuse, and for financial, legal and relationship concerns that may result from a substance use disorder. Companies can offer different types of EAPs through their health insurance network, internal resources, or an external third party.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends workplace supported recovery (WSR) programs for employees with opioid use disorder. These evidence-based programs address physical and mental health, with an emphasis on chronic pain. A WSR program provides an avenue to treatment by raising awareness, reducing stigma, and lowering the barriers to care.
Substance misuse is not a choice or a moral failing, but a treatable health disorder. Dr. Perry advises employers to avoid conflict above all — as it can worsen the stressors behind the SUD. Conversely, an honest and supportive approach can encourage the first steps to recovery.
Read more about the warning signs and treatment options for people with substance use disorders.
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