Workplace Wellbeing

The Invisible Struggle: How to Support Employees with Alcohol Use Problems

Substance use disorder support and treatment for the entire family is a growing need for employees. Here's how to provide that support.

photo authr
Kim McConnell
Director of Clinical Programs
A depressed woman with substance use disorder sitting on a windowsill

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    Harmful alcohol use is common

    Unhealthy alcohol use has impacted most people’s lives in some way. But it’s often hidden, due to shame and stigma, tucked away in every corner of society. The workplace is no exception.

    There’s no industry or sector without employees who are dealing with problems related to their alcohol use, have a family member or loved one who is struggling, or possibly both.

    The wellbeing of loved ones plays a huge role in employees’ lives, and when something starts impacting their family or friends, it can be a heavy stressor and burden for that person. And this doesn’t just go away when they step into the office or start their workday.

    Substance use disorder (SUD) support and treatment for the entire family is a growing need in the workplace. Let’s explore this further.

    Prevalence of alcohol use disorder

    According to the most recent National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism survey:

    • 29.5 million people over the age of 12 had an AUD in the past year
    • 60 million people reported binge drinking in the past month
    • 16.3 million people reported heavy alcohol use in the past month

    The number of people who suffer because of harmful alcohol use is staggering:

    1. More than 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use every year in the U.S.
    2. Harmful alcohol use is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions
    3. Worldwide, 3 million deaths every year are attributed to harmful alcohol use
    4. Overall, 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol, as measured in disability-adjusted life years

    These statistics represent a lot of human suffering. With prevalence so high, there are assuredly employees in most workplaces struggling with alcohol use. In fact, 66% of employees report using alcohol during work hours.

    Signs that an employee needs help

    As a leader or supervisor, you don’t need to investigate or play clinician if you’re concerned about an employee using alcohol or drugs. You should, however, be aware of ongoing shifts in employee behavior, such as:

    1. Changes in productivity
    2. Showing up late on a regular basis
    3. Lower quality of work
    4. More conflict with coworkers
    5. Disengagement

    If you notice ongoing behavioral changes, your role is to open up a non-judgmental conversation with the employee, offer resources and support, and figure out how you can help remedy the behavior, in concert with the employee.

    You can mention to the employee that you have concerns about changes or specific behaviors you are seeing, ask if something is going on or impacting them, and find out what they think about any changes in their behavior.

    Start the conversation

    Here’s one example of an open-ended conversation starter: “What do you think has shifted that’s causing these changes?” Be specific about what you are seeing. “Can I connect you with some resources or support? I really want to see you be successful.”

    This opens the door for the employee to share whatever they’re going through, while keeping you out of a clinician’s role.

    If the employee does disclose that they are struggling with alcohol or substances, or that a loved one is and they’re trying to figure out how to get them help, you can point them to further support.

    It may be an SUD treatment program that’s part of the workplace EAP, or if nothing specific is disclosed but the employee needs support, they can be referred to therapy or coaching.

    It’s essential to address these issues with a real sense of concern, empathy, and care.

    When a family member struggles with alcohol use

    Having a loved one who’s struggling with alcohol use is one of the most stressful situations to navigate. It’s challenging to know how to start conversations with that person, along with the compounding difficulty of finding the right services for them.

    For an employee who is dealing with this at home, you may notice they’re struggling with the stress and emotional toll of that relationship.

    The employee may appear disengaged, because they’re occupied with the practical concerns—the financial cost of trying to get a loved one support or care, while also dealing with the shame and stigma of harmful alcohol use.

    Shame and stigma are still primary barriers to care

    The biggest barrier to people getting care for an SUD is not the availability of services. It’s stigma.

    Think about how many employees have a spouse, teenager, or sibling they’re trying to get help for, while also keeping up their work performance—and feeling like they have to do it all in secret, because of the shame they could experience if their manager or coworker finds out. That’s extremely isolating and lonely.

    We have to do better about making it acceptable to talk about these things at work, and create a safe culture for employees to be open when they or a loved one is struggling with substance use—knowing they’ll receive empathy, support, and resources in return.

    My own experience with stigma

    Last year, someone in my family had a loved one who was struggling with severe depression. She was completely exhausted from dealing with the situation. She wasn’t sleeping, and felt constant worry and stress about keeping that loved one safe.

    She did all the footwork of finding a place for treatment and ensuring they were safe until they could enter treatment. While managing all of that—a huge task in itself—she was also balancing a full-time job.

    I’ll never forget talking to this family member and hearing that she couldn’t take time off of work to support this person. She didn’t feel like she could tell her employer about this situation, because of the shame and stigma surrounding mental health issues.

    An employee taking care of a family member with cancer wouldn’t think twice about telling their employer if they needed to take time off. It’s not useful to treat some illnesses as worthy of care while others are treated as moral or personal failures. That serves no one.

    How leaders can support employees who are struggling

    I think what people miss, from a workplace culture standpoint, is the acknowledgement that SUD and mental health issues are already a part of so many of our lives. Accounting for that in a workplace setting actually allows employees to be more present and engaged at work.  

    We can shift the workplace mentality by:

    1. Creating a culture of support that reduces stigma
    2. Allowing for and encouraging time off when employees have family members who are struggling, or if they’re struggling themselves
    3. Sharing resources regularly and widely, acknowledging the impact on our work lives
    4. Talking about SUD issues at least once a year at work, acknowledging how prevalent they are, and stating that we know people on our team are facing this in their own lives or through someone close to them

    Imagine being that employee who feels overwhelmed at the thought of seeking support, is barely getting by, and hears a leader or their manager say they know people are dealing with this and offering help.

    A dedicated Substance Use Disorder program

    Here’s how our Substance Use Disorder (SUD) program works, when organizations offer it to their employees.

    When employees enroll with Spring Health, and indicate they want help with a substance-related goal or issue, our team of licensed clinicians proactively reaches out to explore where they are on the SUD spectrum.

    To get care, members don’t need to know what kind of help they need or what change they want to make. They don’t even need to be ready to make a change right away. All they have to know is there’s a substance-related issue that they want to work on.

    Spring Health’s evidence-based SUD program is completely confidential, so employers won’t know if an employee utilizes SUD support. It also includes:

    1. Dedicated support: a licensed, master’s-level Care Navigator to guide the member through the process
    2. A range of care options customized to individuals’ lifestyle and budget
    3. Care for dependents (18+) and spouses
    4. A smooth referral process
    5. A clear action plan, so the member knows exactly what their next steps are, and appointments are set up once they get off the phone with their Care Navigator
    6. Providers who specialize in SUD treatment, along with access to external programs, including residential care
    7. Care Navigators also monitor progress, so if a specific treatment isn’t helping, we can change course early

    Confronting stigma to create change

    Harmful alcohol use is all around us. To address it and help the millions of people who struggle with it, we have to create a workplace culture where there is less stigma and people are able to take the time to seek support for themselves or someone else.

    For HR and other workplace leaders, make a point to tell employees about SUD services and resources in general communications. Take a day out of the year to talk about substance use with employees. Let people know they have the support to take time off to deal with substance use, whether for themselves or a loved one.

    This is an area where workplace leaders can make a genuine difference in people’s lives.

    Learn more about comprehensive support for alcohol and drug use that matches individuals with right-sized care to meet their exact needs.

    About the Author
    photo authr
    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.

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