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The Pandemic’s Effect on Substance Use and Wellbeing

Published by: TELUS Health,

Prevention measures brought in to combat Covid-19 caused monumental shifts in the way we live, increasing the risk of disruptions to employee health and wellbeing. Psychological factors such as social isolation, anxiety, and depression have worsened during the pandemic and for many people, this has been accompanied by substance use.

The strains placed on individuals as a result of the pandemic present a serious challenge to employers. Here’s how the pandemic has affected substance use and the steps you can take to support the health and wellbeing of your workforce.

Covid-19 and substance use

Numerous studies have observed that Covid-19 and the control measures brought in to combat the virus have had a profound effect on mental wellbeing. A study of US adults found that 40.9% of participants reported at least one negative mental or behavioural health condition as a result of Covid-19, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, a trauma- and stressor-related disorder related to the pandemic, and having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.

In the case of substance use, the impact of the pandemic has been especially stark. According to LifeWorks’ Mental Health Index, over one-third of Canadians that use alcohol have increased their consumption during the pandemic.

Public health policies have also led to severe disruptions in the treatment of existing substance use disorders, creating the potential for worsening of withdrawal symptoms and relapse. Significant strain at home and psychosocial factors such as isolation, anxiety, and worry also appear to have negatively impacted the maintenance of sobriety for some individuals.

The pandemic may further have increased the number of individuals abusing addictive substances while encouraging addictive behaviours such as excessive internet use. Covid-19-related worry in particular has been linked to incidents of substance use during the pandemic as people seek methods of coping with the uncertainty.

Substance use and wellbeing at work

For employers, the recent findings on substance use during the pandemic are cause for concern. A US study of restaurant workers, for instance, found that working employees reported higher levels of psychological distress and drug and alcohol use than their colleagues who are out of work. All employees, regardless of their mental health status, also reportedly increased their substance use during the pandemic while expressing increased motivation to seek alternative employment.

The impact of the pandemic on employee wellbeing and substance use may have been worsened by Covid-19 physical distancing measures, including orders to ‘stay at home’ which limits contact with family, friends, and colleagues. These factors reduce opportunities for emotional regulation and self-care strategies, including access to support, physical exercise, and social interactions to reduce feelings of isolation.

To support employee wellbeing during continually challenging times, holistic, accessible wellbeing solutions are needed to fill the gap left by traditional, in-person interventions. Analysis has shown that technology and telemedicine, especially live interaction with therapists, can have a positive effect on patient mental health, helping to reduce feelings of isolation. Individuals with substance use disorder can also benefit from digital tools aimed at education on how to manage their substance use and for self-monitoring their symptoms.

Addressing substance use: strategies for employers

The pandemic has increased the risk of severe mental stress and substance use. In order to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic and other disruptions to come, it is crucial to provide extra wellbeing support to employees.

Remote access to wellbeing solutions is one proactive step you can take to help to reduce and repair the damage caused by the pandemic. From 24/7 access to counselling to strategies for improving employee connectedness, the right digital wellbeing platform can bridge the gap between vulnerable employees and the support network they need.

Make your employees feel loved