At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada this March, workers across the country were sent home to self-isolate and help prevent the spread of the virus – and many continue to mostly work from home today.
Mental health experts have raised concerns from the outset about the impact of increased physical and social isolation on Canadians’ mental wellbeing. And, as COVID-19 numbers rise from coast to coast after a brief summer respite, people are managing concerns about job stability, economic recovery, their children’s return to school and, most importantly, their own health and safety.
In September, nearly twenty-five percent of Canadians surveyed reported being very or extremely stressed about the pandemic.
At the same time, BC has seen record numbers of overdose deaths this year, hitting an annual record just over halfway through the year. Drug-related deaths in BC have spiked since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as many people find themselves spending more time isolated and alone without adequate support.
Extended periods of extreme stress and isolation can often cause people to turn to unhealthy coping methods, such as substance abuse. And for those already dealing with addiction issues, times like these make recovery management even more difficult.
Recognizing the signs of addiction and finding help becomes incredibly challenging as Canadians spend more time alone at home, cut off from extended family, friends and colleagues. With over half the country working remotely and companies like TELUS, Shopify and Scotiabank suggesting workers will not return to the office until sometime next year, how can employers help ensure that remote workers are safe and healthy?
Changing perceptions of addiction and educating the workforce
The first step in addressing addiction in the workplace is ensuring that both management and employees understand what it looks like, how they can create an open and inclusive environment, and why that matters. Businesses need to educate all employees on recognizing the signs of addiction and how they can approach their colleagues with empathy, understanding and support.
Even in the most compassionate, open-minded organizations, it can be challenging for businesses to talk to their employees about addiction and its impact on their work. In the context of a work relationship, addiction might seem like a personal issue, and reaching out about it might seem like putting your nose in someone else’s business. However, we always want the best for the people we work with – and it’s also important to remember that addiction can often have a negative impact on a business’ bottom line. Research has shown that before seeking help for their addiction, employees were absent, late or unproductive for 34-43% of working days. Having a conversation with an employee about addiction isn’t just about their health and wellbeing; it’s about their ability to continue work.
Finally, people struggling with addiction need to feel comfortable asking for help, knowing that they will be supported each step of the way. Businesses need to create a cultural shift where disclosing addiction isn’t seen as getting caught, but as getting the help someone needs to improve their quality of life and return to work.
Approaching struggling employees and finding help
Before discussing addiction with an employee, employers need to be aware of what has changed in their behaviour. Maintaining performance and safety records will help businesses identify when someone might be struggling. Extended periods of poor productivity, lateness and absenteeism are all indicators that an employee needs support.
Once an employee has disclosed their addiction and is ready for help, the next step is to have a medical professional diagnose the addiction and to find an appropriate recovery program. Companies, unions, insurance providers and doctors often have relationships with recovery centres and can work closely with an employee to find the program that best suits their needs.
Planning a safe and effective return to work
Making it through addiction treatment is an accomplishment, but it’s just the first step. Returning to work and normal life can make maintaining sobriety a challenge. It’s essential that employers are prepared with a comprehensive, supportive return to work strategy that considers whether the person has built a strong enough foundation to maintain their sobriety. It should also provide access to support groups, counsellors, sponsors and mentors that the employee can meet with on a regular basis. The strategy may also include medical monitoring, depending on the severity of the addiction.
Trusted partners in recovery management
Since 2006, we have been working closely with employers, unions and workplace personnel to navigate the challenges of addiction in the workplace and help people continue doing what they love. A nationally recognized and accredited centre of excellence for the treatment of addiction and process disorders, we offer evidence-based treatment that works in concert with employers to provide inclusive and individualized recovery solutions and treatment planning.
Working with thousands of patients over 14 years, we’ve seen how an effective return to work strategy paired with comprehensive and continuing care can change the course of a person’s life.