Workplace Wellbeing

The Challenge of Change: How Employers Can Modernize Workplace Substance Use Support

Unlock the journey to behavioral change in the face of global Substance Use Disorders (SUD) challenges. Dive into modern care solutions, workplace strategies, and the essentials for cultivating a holistic well-being culture at work.

Written by
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Kim McConnell
Director of Clinical Programs
Clinically reviewed by
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    At some point in our lives, we’ve all made a behavior change. Sometimes, the reason for the change is straightforward, and our path is clear. Other times, taking that first step is complicated by different things, and we find the path to initiating and sustaining change more challenging. 

    The challenge of change is one that employees with substance use concerns often face. It’s estimated that 35 million people worldwide suffer from drug use disorders. Substance use disorder (SUD) has a profound effect on an individual’s wellness and functioning. 

    SUD’s often coexist with other mental health struggles like depression and anxiety, creating a cycle of exacerbation. Despite the availability of behavioral solutions, access to effective SUD treatment remains limited. 

    Recognizing that care isn’t one-size-fits-all, it becomes crucial to tailor support for individuals with SUD based on their unique needs and readiness for change. Individualization forms the cornerstone of a modern, high-quality approach to treating SUD.

    High-quality SUD care:

    • Meets individuals where they are
    • Addresses specific barriers hindering change
    • Supports and aligns with the individual’s goals for change
    • Provides concrete methods to track progress 
    • Adapts the treatment approach when progress stalls
    • Incorporates plans for aftercare support

    Understanding the elements needed for behavioral change

    A person’s motivations for change encompass both universal and deeply personal aspects. Whether driven by health considerations, a desire to to be better parents, or a proactive approach to reduce future challenges, the drive to change is tied to an individual’s core values. Everyone possesses a distinct blend of priorities that shape their motivations for change. 

    Sometimes, the importance of these reasons ebb and flow. They can be like a scale, where the reasons to change weigh down one side in a moment, and the reasons to stay put tilt the scale in another moment.

    Individuals struggling with substance use disorder frequently navigate a delicate balance between the desire for change and compelling reasons to persist in their current situation. For example, someone might feel more comfortable in social situations, struggling to abstain from drinking due to the perceived ease of connecting with others after consuming alcohol.

    This internal conflict exemplifies individuals’ nuanced struggle when contemplating change while acknowledging the comfort and perceived benefits of their current behaviors.

    Modern SUD care: meeting people where they are

    Quality SUD care providers are trained to assess and respond to people at any stage in the change process. If someone is stuck because the reasons to continue substance use are compelling, responsive care may use motivational interviewing to enhance their readiness for change.

    Alternatively, if someone is struggling to stop drinking or cut back because they don’t know how to manage a craving, treatment should focus on equipping them with skills to navigate such experiences without compromising their change goals.

    Spring Health’s SUD program Care Navigators are responsive to individuals’ readiness for change, providing support at every step of the journey. We use modern approaches to SUD care, like motivational interviewing, contingency management, medication-assisted treatment, therapy, coaches, and smoking cessation programs to offer comprehensive care to employees. 

    Our comprehensive mental health solution is the first to achieve a proven net-positive return on investment

    Overcoming barriers to behavioral change

    Despite the existence of evidence-based treatments for the millions worldwide affected by SUD, the majority remains without access to such care. Overcoming this disparity begins with how employers address SUD in the workplace.

    Common barriers to seeking help include:

    • The discomfort of acknowledging the consequences of substance use
    • Stigma leading to fear of judgment and self-judgment
    • The challenge of finding high-quality, effective SUD care
    • Being matched to a treatment program that fails to address individual needs

    SUD solutions: Building and tracking goals

    The decision to seek care can stem from various realizations, such as recognizing a recurring inability to follow through on intentions to reduce substance use. While the desire to change may persist, it’s through goal setting that meaningful transformation takes place. 

    The more specific the goal, the better. Substance-related goals that someone might consider include:

    • Abstinence 
    • Cutting back on days drinking per week or month
    • Establishing a limit on the number of drinks consumed per occasion
    • Implementing rules to reduce consequences (e.g., avoiding drinking and driving)
    • Setting other goals to address underlying issues (e.g., seeking alternative sleep aids to replace marijuana) 

    Curiosity: A key ingredient for SUD goal-setting

    It’s critical to approach goals with an attitude of curiosity and experimentation. For individuals participating in Dry January to reset, uncertainty may surround whether they’ll resume drinking or to what extent. In this situation, it can be helpful for the person to observe their behavior, assess the impact of abstaining, and gauge the challenges or ease associated with the change.

    These experiments help us clarify our long-term goals and help us identify areas where additional support may be required. That support can come in the form of therapy, coaching, or more intensive treatment, depending on a person’s needs. The Spring Health SUD program facilitates the discovery and initiation of all these forms of support.

    How employers can offer care to employees with SUD

    Sustained periods of stress at work can intensify substance use disorder. When employees face constant stress throughout their eight-hour workdays, they may resort to alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs as a coping mechanism. Difficult relationships at work, just like at home, can further contribute to an escalation in substance use.  

    However, a workplace has the potential to foster a culture of recovery and mental wellness. When employees struggle with work-related stress, effective SUD treatment becomes a valuable resource to cope with stress and stay on track with their goals through stressful times.

    Employers can make the most significant impact by ensuring that effective SUD programs are accessible to all employees and providing clear guidance on how to access them. 

    To enhance program accessibility, employers can consider aligning communication methods with their employees’ preferred information channels. Whether it’s digital communication or a tangible solution like a card equipped with a QR code, tailoring the approach ensures effective distribution of information about Spring Health’s mental health benefits and the SUD program.  

    Discuss SUD solutions in the workplace

    The most effective approach to reduce stigma begins with open dialogue. Avoid hiding support for substance use disorder and communicate to employees that seeking assistance is both encouraged and confidential. Clearly outline the confidentiality protections for employees seeking support for substance use concerns. 

    Research shows that employees who have experienced depression or anxiety prefer their managers to encourage conversations about mental health at work and make adjustments to accommodate their workload. To cultivate a positive workplace, encourage managers to openly discuss mental health trends and address substance use disorder as an issue for which an employee might need support.  

    Embracing a modern approach to SUD care

    A high-quality, proactive approach to addressing substance use is not only beneficial for your employees, but also contributes to a healthy workplace environment. This involves meeting individuals where they are and establishing connections with providers possessing expertise in substance use disorder. 

    The landscape of addressing substance use concerns is transforming as the workplace evolves. Over the last few years, we’ve done a lot to destigmatize mental health and have learned the impact of addressing it in the workplace. Yet, we still have a long way to go with SUD. 

    Modern solutions go beyond a one-size-fits-all-approach, offering comprehensive care where the point of entry isn’t the endpoint. Instead, effective care is responsive to an individual’s evolving needs and how those needs may change over time. This adaptable and nuanced approach promotes employee well-being and fosters a healthier workplace culture.

    Learn more about Spring Health’s modern approach to Substance Use Disorder (SUD) care, which provides support for individuals and their loved ones over 18.   

    About the Author
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    Kim McConnell
    Director of Clinical Programs

    Dr. McConnell is a licensed psychologist in Colorado who has worked in the area of substance use disorders since 2007. She has experience as a direct care provider in a medical trauma center in a large urban hospital, an outpatient mental health clinic, and community mental health centers. She has also served as an administrator in a county probation department and state medicaid program. Dr. McConnell currently serves as the Director of Clinical Programs at Spring Health.

    About the clinical reviewer
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