The impact of COVID-19 on employee mental health

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many people have found themselves facing unprecedented mental health challenges. The anxiety of new virus variants and shifting levels of infection risk, the uncertainty of changing public health guidelines, and the isolation caused by lockdowns and other restrictions have taken a significant toll on mental health. Surveys demonstrate that mental health diagnoses—including Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)—have increased significantly since the pandemic began.1

For some employees, the pandemic strain may have created brand new mental health issues that they’re experiencing for the first time. For others, the pandemic has made it difficult to cope with existing mental health struggles. And in many cases, employees may find themselves using substances to cope with anxiety, depression, and other personal issues.

While many employers have begun to take a more focused approach on wellness and mental health, particularly as the pandemic progresses, SUDs remain highly stigmatized, and struggling employees may feel isolated and reluctant to seek support for fear of judgment or even repercussions at work. Fortunately, employers can take decisive action to support employees who may be suffering from an SUD.

Substance Use Disorders in the workplace

Whether they realize it or not, most employers regularly interact with employees struggling with an SUD, as 70% of people with a substance use issue are employed.2 Unless the employee shows up to work in a state of impairment, SUDs may go unnoticed. However, even if an employee’s work does not suffer due to substance use, they may be experiencing severe emotional turmoil. Unfortunately, only one in ten people with an SUD will seek help3 due to the highly stigmatized nature of substance use, making it especially tricky for managers to notice if their employees are struggling.

Managers focused on promoting mental health and wellness among their teams should be aware that substance use could be a factor for some employees, but it can be difficult to detect signs of an SUD. Many of the telltale signs of substance use overlap with symptoms of other mental health issues like depression and anxiety. For example, employees dealing with an SUD may show up late for work, have difficulty meeting deadlines, make more mistakes than usual, or demonstrate a decrease in attention to personal appearance, but these symptoms are not exclusive to SUDs. The fact that SUDs can be so difficult to detect makes it critical for managers to cultivate trusting, understanding relationships with their employees based on compassion and open communication.

Employers should also aim to reduce the stigma of substance use in their workplaces so that employees feel comfortable seeking support. By providing education, resources, and tools that address substance use in a supportive, compassionate way, employers can foster an environment that makes it easier for employees to get help if they need it.

It’s okay to get help

Employers and HR leaders can play a critical role in nurturing a supportive environment for employees with SUDs. In many cases, providing tools to help employees navigate an SUD can improve the overall mental health of your workforce. To provide better assistance for your employees as the pandemic continues, consider the following options:

Offer an Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) and ensure your employees know about its services. Over 50% of Canadians with an SUD have also experienced other mental health struggles. A lack of holistic mental health supports can intensify the impulse to use substances to cope with depression and anxiety.

Educate yourself and your employees on existing Substance Use Disorder resources. Organizations such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) provide free educational resources and access to community support networks by region.

Offer a Substance Use Disorder support tool as part of your benefits package. A cost-effective option like ALAViDA provides self-guided and clinician-guided support to help employees confidentially seek help.

Cowan offers a variety of cost-effective wellness options, including targeted Substance Use Disorder solutions, to support the mental health of your employees. To get started, contact a Cowan consultant today.

1 The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from URL.
2, 3 Substance Use Isn’t Easy to Spot: How to Take the First Step so Employees Get the Help They Need. ALAViDA. Retrieved from URL.