While the nation is fixated on the leaping flames of the COVID-19 pandemic, the costly and deadly plague of substance abuse continues to smolder beneath the surface.
September is National Recovery Month, a campaign focused on creating awareness of the issue and the fact that, with proper treatment, those who battle substance abuse can go on to lead productive lives.
About 70% of the estimated 22.4 million illicit drug users 18-and-over are full-time or part-time employees, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The Recovery Centers of America, using government data on everything from absenteeism and crime to lost earnings, estimates the overall economic loss at about $1.45 trillion annually, with productivity losses accounting for nearly $6 billion of that total.
“No matter how you calculate it, substance abuse and mental illness create an enormous disruption to the employee’s personal life and is a huge drain on the economy due to reduced level of workplace performance,” said Karie Batzler, Capital BlueCross’ Director of Behavioral Health.
National Recovery Month is an excellent opportunity for companies to open up a clear dialog with employees about the issue, Batzler said.
“Put it out there,” Batzler advises businesses. “Let it become a topic of discussion. Give legitimacy to it, and permission to talk about it. Substance abuse is an issue that tends to be kept in the shadows.
“Talk about the resources you may offer, such as employee assistance programs and behavioral health benefits. It is a way to say ‘we realize this is a legitimate concern, and as your employer we care about you and these services are available to you,’” Batzler explained.
COVID-19 only worsened the problem of substance abuse, Batzler said.
“Isolation tends to exacerbate underlying (substance abuse) illness,” she said. “There is potential for drinking more or using more. We are feeling the pain of the pandemic, and emotional pain is just as legitimate as physical pain.”
One arguably positive side effect of the pandemic is the growth in awareness and use of telehealth services such as those offered through Capital BlueCross’ Virtual Care app.
Such platforms seem particularly well suited to psychiatry and counseling services, according to Batzler. Telehealth services help ensure social distancing, increase access, and even alleviate some of the stigma sometimes associated with showing up at the office of a mental health professional.
Businesses that assist workers with substance addiction or abuse often see decreased health care claims and absenteeism, and increased productivity, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
“Just letting the employee know that their recovery comes first is important,” Batzler said.
“Is the employer in a position that they can be more flexible? You’re not giving them a pass, but small gestures such as flexing an employee’s schedule shows that you care, and can make all the difference by making it easier for an employee to attend an AA meeting or attend a therapy session,” Batzler said.
“I think a lot of employers don’t really know how to talk about it.”