Employers need to recognise that drug and alcohol issues among employees have risen during the pandemic, exacerbating physical and mental health problems stemming from lockdowns.
An addiction treatment organisation in the UK told Personnel Today on 27 August that it had seen a “staggering” rise in white collar drug and alcohol dependency with one in 10 people being treated having a senior leadership role in an organisation.
To think that drugs and alcohol will never affect your staff after such a difficult 18 months is incredibly naive” – Eytan Alexander, UK Addiction Treatment Group
Eytan Alexander, CEO of the UK Addiction Treatment Group, added that it was very “naive” of anyone to think that the experiences of the past 18 months for workers would not lead to a huge rise in alcohol and drug use.
His comments added to the findings of separate pieces of research over the summer by the OECD and the UN, which underlined that drug and alcohol consumption has increased in homes in western Europe and the US.
The OECD found from government tax receipt data that alcohol sales increased by up to 5% in Germany, the UK and the US in 2020 compared to 2019. In the US, online sales of alcohol rose by 234% in 2020.
Women, parents of young children, people with higher income and those with anxiety and depressive symptoms reported the highest increase in alcohol consumption, for instance in Australia, Belgium, France, the UK and the US, revealed the OECD.
Personnel Today last year reported on how nine out of 10 workers had admitted to drinking alcohol while working at home and earlier this year ONS figures revealed that a record number of Britons had died from alcohol-linked problems.
A similar pattern has been seen when it comes to use of drugs, the UN reported in June with a fourfold increase in usage between 2017 and 2020. It suggested that tech innovation, the dark web and use of new platforms to sell products has ushered in “a globalised market where all drugs are more available and accessible everywhere”.
The report found that cannabis potency had increased by more than double in recent years in many countries and that cocaine supply chains to Europe were diversifying, pushing prices down and quality up. “This is likely to widen the potential harm caused by the drug in the region,” said the report authors.
Among its policy recommendations were that governments should forge public/private partnerships
with internet service providers, tech companies, shipping and mailing companies. Increased regulation of cryptocurrency markets and electronic payments was also advised.
Use of ultra potent cannabis and sedatives had increased greatly during lockdowns, found the UN. To counter this, governments needed to route post Covid-19 funding towards drug prevention and treatment to prevent the acceleration of increasing drug use patterns.
According to Suzannah Robin, sales and training director at drug testing equipment firm AlcoDigital, the disturbing figures underlined that employers of weekend and shift workers ought to recognise that employees could still be under the influence when they arrive at work after a night out – or night in.
She said: “If drugs or alcohol are still in the system, no amount of coffee or paracetamol can disguise the fact that the employee could be a liability to themselves and to those working around them, particularly in safety-critical industries such as transport and construction.”
While the types of worker Robin is referring to may be subject to workplace testing, more difficult to address are the substance problems of white collar workers, who have been able to conceal drug and alcohol issues during lockdowns. Zoom meetings, for example, are not likely to reveal that somebody is under the influence.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that lockdowns have meant it has been more difficult for people to attend counselling or therapy to combat their issues. Alexander, of the UK Addiction Treatment Group, said: “Stereotypically, white collar workers in the UK have more disposable income as a result of their more ‘stressful’ jobs. Those in managerial or senior positions need to let off steam and more than you’d think turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms to their employment pressures.
“Across our treatment centres, we’ve seen a staggering rise in the number of ‘professionals’ we’re treating for drug and alcohol addiction since the Covid-19 lockdowns eased; I’d say at least one in every 10 addicts we treat is a senior/manager, chief executive or managing director.”
He added that drug and alcohol awareness schemes were part of the answer. “We’re not here to encourage employers to make their staff’s jobs less stressful. But what we can do is support employers and their employees by offering a completely free drug and alcohol awareness programme. The programme allows for open and honest conversation in confidence, and provides ways to get support outside of work.
“Ultimately if an employer cares about the wellbeing of their staff – which we know will only improve their business operationally – then this programme is for them. To think that drugs and alcohol will never affect your staff after such a difficult 18 months is incredibly naive.”
Those in managerial or senior positions need to let off steam and more than you’d think turn to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms to their employment pressures” – Alexander
Last year, reported the Guardian, a New York City Lawyer Assistance Program held a webinar discussing substance use and mental health for lawyers. Eileen Travis, the program’s executive director, said that normally up to 100 people would attend. But during lockdown about 700 attended, many with opioid use problems.
Companies also needed to be watchful when it came to employees returning from furlough, said Robin. “Extra caution should be taken with returning staff members who have potentially developed a reliance on alcohol or drugs, either to help fill their time at home or deal with the stress the last year has presented,” she added.
Covid-safe drug and alcohol testing procedures protected employees and employers by preventing accidents and ensuring that people remembered there could be wider consequences for their drug and alcohol use.
Robin said that now that Covid restrictions had largely been lifted, “Unfortunately the signs are that some people will struggle to keep their drinking in check, and others will have developed a drugs habit during lockdown. If these problems are carried into the workplace, the consequences can be dire. We’d urge all employers to take a fresh look at their overall health and safety policy and consider whether in-house testing is the best way manage drug or alcohol misuse.”
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