Opinion - CNBC Work

Op-ed: Red flags that your coworker has fallen prey to addiction during the pandemic

Rachel Graham CEO, and John Edmonson, director of wellness, Healing Springs Ranch
Key Points
  • Drug and alchol addiction in the workplace has risen since the pandemic began.
  • The American Medical Association reported that as of August, more than 40 states reported a rise in opioid-related deaths, along with ongoing concerns for those with a mental health or substance use disorder.
  • Rachel Graham is CEO and co-founder of Healing Springs Ranch, an addiction treatment and mental health facility in Tioga, Texas, and a YPO member. John Edmonson, MS-LPC-S, is the company's director of wellness. The facility has seen a 28% increase in occupancy since the pandemic began and an increase of addiction among executives in the C-suite.
Carlo107 | E+ | Getty Images

Even with the country reopening, many workers and employers are trying to cope with a side effect of the pandemic: a flare-up in alcohol and drug abuse among colleagues.  

With many people's routines disrupted, stress mounting as working parents try to manage online school, and mental health and addiction treatment services disrupted, we have seen an uptick in calls at our treatment center related to addiction in the workplace. This includes addiction problems among C-suite executives. For some workers, occasional drinking or use of prescription drugs has morphed into dependency. Others who were previously managing addictions successfully have relapsed.

It's a problem with nationwide implications. Even before the pandemic, 95,158 Americans were dying from causes related to excessive alcohol use annually — based on Centers for Disease Control research from 2011-2015. Since the pandemic, alcohol sales have surged nationwide, Nielsen found, with off-premise sales of alcohol are up 23%.

Meanwhile, deaths from drug overdoses — already at a record high of 71,730 in 2019, according to the CDC — have been spiking in many communities. The American Medical Association reported that as of August, more than 40 states reported a rise in opioid-related deaths, along with ongoing concerns for those with a mental health or substance use disorder. The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP) reported a nearly 17% increase in drug overdoses from March to May 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

If you suspect a colleague needs help with an addiction, it's always best to reach out early, so they don't become a statistic. Here are some of the warning signs and suggestions on what to say as you offer help.

1. They're showing signs of the cycle of addiction. Addictive behavior starts before someone actually uses the addictive substance. Early in the cycle, they may experience a surge in energy as they think about getting a fix of whatever they are addicted to. They may show signs like excitability and rapid speech. As they indulge in the addictive behavior, they may seem euphoric.

Then reality sets in. They may experience regret. Maybe they felt great while drinking or abusing a prescription drug but now they missed an important meeting. The shame cycle begins, and they withdraw and disconnect. Their speech and affect may become flat. When this type of self-loathing sets in, they frequently turn to their substance of choice for relief. Then the cycle starts again. If you work with someone every day who is showing behaviors like this, they could be struggling with an addiction.

2. They're posting about substances on social media. The memes people post on social media about day drinking are sometimes just jokes, but if a colleague is sharing #drinking memes every couple of days, pay attention. New research by Penn Medicine and Stony Brook University found that people whose Facebook posts frequently used the words "drink," "drunk," and "bottle" were more likely to have a diagnosis of alcoholism, and those whose posts used hostile language such as "dumb" or profanity were more likely to be suffering from drug abuse or psychosis.

3. Their physical appearance has changed. Even on video conference calls, it's possible to observe subtle changes in someone's appearance that may signal addiction. Someone who normally looks rested may start to have bags under their eyes from staying up late. The coloration of their face may be whiter, or redder. Their pupils may be dilated. Their nose may look raw, a sign they could be snorting a drug.

Some people cover up these signs by keeping their camera turned off. If they once turned on their camera but don't do it anymore, that may be a warning sign of more than Zoom fatigue.

4. They sound different. Someone who is actively abusing drugs or alcohol may suddenly start pausing for a long time when they speak. That's an indicator they can't concentrate. Or they may breathe differently, perhaps taking more rapid breaths. That can reflect the use of certain drugs.

How to approach a colleague you suspect is battling addiction

Some potential warning signs of addiction could have many other causes. It is important to avoid accusations when you approach a colleague who is showing them, in case your hunch is wrong.

Keep any inquiries you make fact-based. For instance, "I'm concerned about you. You showed up at the meeting late, you are slurring your speech, and you divulged confidential information that was not supposed to be shared with the rank and file of the company. Is there something going on?"

If someone does reveal they are struggling with addiction, employers should be prepared to refer them to resources in the community, even if the company doesn't have a formal employee assistance plan. Keep a list of local clinicians and facilities to which you can refer team members who need help. Workers who don't have health insurance can tap into resources from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Online therapy, known as telemental health, is another moderately priced option.

While no one wants to break confidences when a colleague is suffering, it is important to let HR know if someone confides they are slipping back into addiction and they are operating heavy machinery or company cars. Keeping mum exposes the company to liability issues.

Bear in mind that people suffering from alcohol addiction are a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act, with companies' responsibilities varying with their size and the role someone plays.

Although employers can ban the use of alcohol in the workplace and discipline someone for coming to work drunk, they must make reasonable accommodations for someone to undergo rehabilitation. Employers cannot fire someone for using illegal drugs if they are no longer using them and either went through rehab or are currently being rehabilitated.

Pandemic-related stress is going to be a fact of life for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for anyone in the workplace to spot problems early and to guide coworkers to any help they need.

—By Rachel Graham, CEO and co-founder of Healing Springs Ranch, an addiction treatment and mental health facility in Tioga, Texas, and a YPO member. John Edmonson, MS-LPC-S, is the facility's director of wellness.

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Resilience@Work: anxiety, mental health and performance
Resilience@Work: anxiety, mental health and performance