Address Substance Use Through the Power of Prevention

Address Substance Use Through the Power of Prevention

November 28, 2023

Substance use disorders occur when alcohol or drug use significantly impairs an individual’s mental and physical health. Left untreated, a substance use disorder can negatively affect a person’s ability to function at home and at work.

And odds are substance use disorders are affecting employees in your organization. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates more than 46 million Americans meet the clinical criteria for substance use disorder. But 94% do not receive treatment.

Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports significant increases in people starting or increasing substance use over the past three years.

Programs treating substance use disorders provide valuable resources for employees and employers. However, preventive measures are often lacking, according to the industry news resource BenefitsPRO. 

Addressing underlying issues before substance use turns into a disorder can lead to better health outcomes and plan savings.

Preventive strategies

Incorporate the following preventive strategies into your wellness programming and workplace culture. 

Craft a policy. A written policy on substance use issues should set a tone of open communication. Detail when, where and how employees can report substance use challenges. When usage impacts job performance or endangers others, be clear about the consequences. However, emphasize that employees will not face punishment or discrimination for acknowledging struggles with alcohol or drug use. The goal is to encourage employees to seek resources before substance use becomes a disorder. Highlight your policy during onboarding and reinforce the message with frequent, consistent communications.

Reduce the stigma. One of the most significant barriers to preventive care for substance use is the fear of being shamed or treated differently. As you raise awareness of the health risks of drug use and excessive alcohol consumption, normalize using resources at any stage of life. Extend your reach by getting the word out to employees’ dependents. A family member’s struggle with drugs or alcohol can be as difficult as an employee’s own challenge. Find health and wellness professionals and members of your organization willing to share their stories. Testimonials about recovery are powerful and create a safe space to discuss substance use at work.

Take a holistic approach. Different aspects of health are interconnected. For example, a financial or mental health challenge can increase the risk of substance use. Holistic health programs incorporating physical, mental and financial health can reduce substance use disorders. Examples of holistic strategies are increasing the accessibility and affordability of mental health benefits and including substance use resources in various benefit offerings. These may include an employee assistance program, mental health apps, financial education classes and online fitness tools. Connecting the dots between substance use and mental, behavioral and physical health will support your prevention efforts.

Connect with a substance use treatment provider. Establishing a relationship with a local provider can connect employees to substance use resources before issues become more serious. Providers may be able to offer virtual and in-person education. Topics could include how substance use disorders develop, warning signs, peer pressure, and societal and genetic risk factors. Creating this partnership proactively can increase awareness and access to resources.

Include substance use in your diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Support networks, mentorships and employee resource groups are common among caregivers and underrepresented gender and racial demographics in the workplace. Doing the same for people concerned about substance use is another way to reach employees at a critical point in their lives. In addition, use inclusive language and support sobriety. If your organization communicates about “dry January,” in which people give up alcohol for the first month of the new year, make it sincere rather than humorous. Talk about the risks related to drugs and alcohol all year. And decrease the focus on alcohol at after-work events and team-bonding activities. Instead, communicate the value of collaborating and strengthening work relationships.

The impact on your workplace

Preventing substance use from becoming a disorder can have an outsized impact on employee health and plan finances. 

Substance use disorders cost employers and health plans an estimated $35 billion a year, according to research from the CDC. And the actual amount is likely much higher because the CDC data doesn’t include absenteeism, presenteeism or turnover.

These figures don’t account for unreported substance use either. The CDC numbers are based on 1% of employer-sponsored health plan members having a substance use disorder. However, 11% of employees self-reported this issue.

A MetLife survey reinforces the cultural importance of providing benefits to help employees care for their health. When employees feel employers care for them, they are: 

  • 92% more engaged
  • 65% more loyal
  • 56% more productive

For more information

Addressing substance use issues early on can save health plan dollars and produce better health outcomes in the long term.

For more information on substance use benefits and prevention, talk with your insurance broker or benefits adviser. They can help you examine current workplace practices and explore new solutions.