How to Destigmatize Addiction in the Workplace

The pandemic has created a steady decline in mental health and with that comes a heightened focus on substance use disorder. In 2020, overdose-related deaths in the U.S. hit a record high of over 93,000. Over 70% of an estimated 22.4 million illicit drug users and nearly 80% of 41.2 million binge drinkers are part of our everyday workforce. With that, there’s a high likelihood your organization has employees who are struggling or in recovery or have friends or family members who are.

Unfortunately, negative perceptions and attitudes toward substance abuse can damage the self-esteem of a recovering employee and even compromise their ability to do their best work. These negative attitudes can also prevent those who may be struggling from seeking help. Here are some ways your company can help encourage comprehension and compassion while helping to reduce the stigma around addiction:

Recognize that addiction is a mental health disorder.

Addiction, or substance use disorder, is a chronic brain disorder. It’s important to understand it’s a mental health issue that must be taken seriously. Much like life-long physical health conditions such as diabetes, a person with an addiction must manage their condition for the rest of their life, even when they stop using. While substance use can have many underlying causes – genetics, exposure, trauma – some people who struggle with addiction may also have underlying mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. Many turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with these issues. To better support the mental well-being of your employees, include substance use awareness and education as part of your communications, trainings and resources on mental health.

Encourage supportive conversations.

Helping employees feel supported begins with compassion and willingness to listen. For many, it can be intimidating to disclose their struggles – especially in the workplace. The stigma around addiction is so deeply rooted, that over 20% of substance users avoid evidence-based treatment out of fear of repercussions at work. Although substance use disorder is classified as a protected group (with some restrictions) under the Americans with Disabilities Act, some employees may feel their performance is being questioned or they’re being overlooked for promotions. They may also fear being judged by colleagues and peers. Integrating sensitivity and comprehension of addiction into your company culture can help employees feel supported and empowered to seek help.

Communicate resources and benefits.

Taking action through recovery-friendly benefits and programs can help support your organization’s commitment to destigmatizing and dismantling negative attitudes around addiction. Additionally, you can demonstrate willingness for second-chance employment and help reduce turnover of your valued talent. Here are some benefits to consider:

  • Flexible scheduling. Many treatment providers require daily attendance of self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Allowing for flexible scheduling can help your employees get the support they need.
  • Short- and long-term disability insurance offerings. Several disability insurance companies provide case management, stay-at-work and return-to-work programs as well as access to behavioral health professionals.
  • Mental health resources. Make sure you’re offering a variety of mental well-being benefits, including easy access to professional help. Harvard Pilgrim offers a host of digital health tools for members that can help employees navigate their emotional self-care, as well as access to mental health professionals through Doctor On Demand.

Learn more about Harvard Pilgrim’s prevention, treatment and support resources for addiction.