The last 18 months have been extremely tough on employees. Many were forced into difficult work-at-home situations, working longer hours while also juggling health concerns, childcare and socio-political turmoil. As a result, many employees are struggling with stress and mental health issues, along with untold numbers who may be battling substance use issues or are in recovery.

As organizations begin to transition their workforce back to in-office settings, they must keep in mind that employees may be bringing this extra burden along with them — including substance use disorders. While you may think that substance use isn’t an issue for your company, statistics show otherwise.

Even before the pandemic, over 20.3 million Americans suffered with addiction, and more than 23.5 million were living in recovery – totaling roughly 13% of the population. Plenty of evidence shows that alcohol and drug use increased considerably during the pandemic, which means the likelihood that your employees are using is now much greater.

With that in mind, here are seven strategies HR and training leaders can implement to set employees up for success as they return to the office.

  1. Revisit policies and train employees on the updates. While working from home, one in three employees admitted they were more likely to drink alcohol during work hours. Clearly, that’s unacceptable and even more so in the office. Assuming you already had employee policies addressing substance use, it may be time to revisit those and offer a refresher to employees and managers. Remind them of the penalties for being under the influence at work, not only so that they’re aware but also so that you have a clear policy to support disciplinary action if needed.
  2. Train employees on mental health awareness and addiction. There’s still a lot of stigma around mental health and addiction, and employers have a tremendous opportunity to change that attitude in the workplace. Set up training programs that destigmatize mental health issues and educate employees that addiction is a brain disease, not a character flaw or moral failing. By addressing these as medical issues, employers can demonstrate empathy, eliminate the stigma and help employees learn how to support one another.
  3. Train managers in how to address problems. During the pandemic, alcohol consumption alone increased sharply, and 47% of people say their substance use had increased during the lockdown. That means managers may be more likely to encounter employees under the influence. Provide guidance on the objective and observable behaviors to look for — from chronic tardiness or absenteeism to the smell of alcohol, slurred speech or a performance decline — and how they should respond. Give them the training they need to be supportive and create an open-door policy to provide assistance while also respecting their team’s right to privacy.
  4. Embrace second chances. All employees are already facing enough stress, and those with mental health issues or addiction are struggling even more. This is a great opportunity to build and operate with a culture of empathy. Make it clear that no one will be shamed or ostracized for coming forward with, talking about or getting help for a mental health issue or addiction. Establish a policy of second chances that makes it clear to employees that they won’t be penalized on the first instance that substance use is detected if they agree to get treatment.
  1. Consider a hybrid model. For many, the transition from working in the office full time to working at home full time was extremely difficult and making the switch back may be even tougher. This is especially true for folks who count on being able to take mental health breaks during the day or who are faced with childcare issues. Consider allowing employees to work on a hybrid model — three days at home and two in the office, for example, or whatever split makes sense for your business — even if it’s just temporary. This can help ease the adjustment and help employees learn to cope with the new routine without turning to substances.
  2. Remind employees about benefits. While many companies are adding wellness benefits and 84% of CFOs say their company has successfully addressed employee wellness, fewer than a third of employees agree. That could mean employees simply aren’t aware of the programs available for counseling or addiction treatment. Having the benefits does no good if employees don’t know about them. Consider creating a training module that outlines the mental health and addiction treatment benefits your company offers so that employees know what’s available and how to use them.
  3. Establish partnerships for referral. One of the main reasons most people don’t seek treatment for mental health issues or addiction is that they don’t know where to turn. They may not know about options in their area or whether their insurance will cover treatment. Companies can make a huge impact in eliminating that barrier by partnering with local addiction treatment facilities, local therapists or even providing mental health apps that employees can access for free. It creates a quick lever you can pull to get someone in need directly into a program that you both can be confident will provide quality treatment. By simply making the connection, employers can provide a tremendous service to their employees who now know exactly what to do to get help.

Addressing mental health and substance use in the workplace can be an uncomfortable process, but it’s essential for providing employees the support they need to be successful when returning to the office. By providing training that eliminates shame, gives clear direction on protocols and outlines resources for help, companies can make the transition back to the office smooth and uneventful.