Substance Abuse among Remote Workers

Andrew McKenna - Expert Content Editor

 Updated: 07/13/2023

A Behavioral Health Crisis Carried over from the Pandemic

The COVID-19 Pandemic gave birth to an almost instant crisis of Substance Use Disorder. Unprecedented global and national mental health strain combined with rapid behavioral shifts in the way we live, work, and interact with one another created a fertile ground for alcohol and drug addiction.

One of the populations that suffered the most from this phenomenon is remote workers. As the business world shifted toward a remote paradigm, a considerable portion of American workers turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the trauma of the transition and the alarming circumstances in which they found themselves. Now, as more and more of these workers are returning to the office, they’re bringing their Pandemic-era substance abuse with them.

The Evolving Scope of the Problem

The impact of substance abuse among remote workers continues to grow even after they return to the office.

Data reported from leading behavioral health experts and the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) indicates that during the pandemic:

  • 25 percent of remote workers had participated in a Zoom or Microsoft Teams work call while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
  • 20 percent admitted to drinking or using drugs while employed remotely this year
  • 73 percent of these respondents said they’d miss the opportunity to use drugs during the workday if they went back into the office.
  • Over 25 percent said an added benefit of working from home is the opportunity to use alcohol and other drugs during the workday.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the long-term impact of the crisis has only escalated. Data from a comprehensive study on Pandemic-era substance abuse reveals that the number of American workers with substance use disorder jumped 23 percent during this turbulent time.

The same study found that increased substance abuse can account for between 9 percent and 26 percent of the decline in prime-age labor force participation between February 2020 and June 2021. Daytime abuse of all illicit drugs, including cocaine, opioids, benzos, and others, has also increased among working-age Americans (25-54).

As more and more companies are mandating the return to in-office or hybrid models, the rise in substance abuse among the remote workforce has never been more apparent…or destructive.

Random workplace drug testing rose nearly 40 percent from 2021 to 2022, meaning that more and more employees are at risk of job loss and even legal issues.

Causes of Substance Abuse among Remote Employees

There were many factors that contributed to this phenomenon, including but not limited to:

  • Anxiety on All Fronts – The start of the pandemic was marked by crippling anxiety and uncertainty. Nobody knew how harmful the virus was, how to keep themselves or their families safe, or how to maneuver amid these fears. This anxiety permeated every area of life, including our careers. Many used alcohol or drugs to cope with this uncertainty and just kept going.
  • Depression from Lockdown – So many of us also watched loved ones succumb to the pandemic while we couldn’t do anything to help them. We were cut off from the people we cared about most and weren’t sure when or if we’d ever see them again. Many employers overcompensated by shifting to a more “happy-hour friendly” culture. Depression and loneliness combined with these shifts created a spike in daytime workplace substance abuse.
  • Lack of Awareness – One of the largest drivers of this surge in employee substance abuse is hubris. Workers thought they’d be able to just stop using alcohol or other drugs during the day after their remote period ended. However, their brains and central nervous systems have gotten used to these behaviors and are unable to give them up.

All of these upticks in mental health issues have coincided with diminished treatment resources mandated by remote-only healthcare.

Returning to the Office While Struggling with Substance Use Disorder

If you’re a worker returning to the office after developing a substance use disorder, it’s only a matter of time before your problems affect your professional life, if they haven’t already. The good news is that there are more resources than ever to seek treatment while keeping your job secure. Addiction is recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and treatment is an Essential Health Benefit under the Affordable Care Act, which means it must be covered, at least partially, by insurance.

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act permits employers to ensure that the workplace is free from the illegal use of drugs and the use of alcohol and to comply with other federal laws and regulations regarding drug and alcohol use.

At the same time, the ADA provides limited protection from discrimination for recovering drug abusers and for alcoholics Below is an overview of the current legal obligations for employers and employees:

  • An individual who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs is not an individual with a disability when the employer acts on the basis of such use.
  • An employer may not discriminate against a person who has a history of drug addiction but who is not currently using drugs and who has been rehabilitated.
  • An employer may prohibit the illegal use of drugs and the use of alcohol at the workplace.
  • It is not a violation of the ADA for an employer to give tests for the illegal use of drugs.
  • An employer may discharge or deny employment to persons who currently engage in the illegal use of drugs.
  • Employees who use drugs or alcohol may be required to meet the same standards of performance and conduct that are set for other employees.
  • Employees may be required to follow the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 and rules set by federal agencies pertaining to drug and alcohol use in the workplace.

The sad fact is that many don’t get treatment because they’re afraid of getting fired, but businesses have a financial and productive interest in helping their employees enter recovery. That’s why many companies have employee-assistance programs (EAPs) to help their staff overcome their substance use disorder and offer workplace education on substance abuse.

Employing or Managing Someone with Substance Use Disorder

If a member of your staff is battling addiction, it’s important to realize that they still have a chance of being the same capable, vibrant, and productive employee that you initially hired. Investing in their success is not only a decent thing to do, but it will also help you reduce costs associated with turnover, possible legal issues, lost productivity, and other factors. More and more employers are helping employees find treatment so they can return to work through different types of EAPs.

As the impact of Pandemic-era substance use disorder becomes more and more evident, it will be up to employers and employees alike to find a way forward.