Remote Work and Substance Abuse - What Managers Need to Know
Employees Management

Remote Work and Substance Abuse – What Managers Need to Know

With many Americans still working from home, our everyday habits have drastically changed in order to accommodate our new daily routines. For some, this may mean waking up a few minutes later or perhaps juggling work and homeschooling the children, but others are using this newfound freedom as reason to have an alcoholic drink during their workday.

When faced with isolation, stress, and fear, many may look to alcohol to alleviate their stress, as it numbs emotions. In this particular situation, being primarily confined to our homes with much less contact with others than usual on a daily basis, it can be tempting to grab a drink during the workday. In fact, 35% of Americans say they are likely to drink more alcohol now than they did back in February.

Spotting Substance Abuse Issues in Remote Workers

At the office, it’s easy to spot the signs of a drinking problem, such as the smell of alcohol, glassy eyes, slurred speech, performance issues, and frequent tardiness. But with no physical contact, these signs can be very difficult to spot—especially for those with little experience managing remote employees or navigating the sensitivities around employees and addiction.

HR professionals can start by educating managers and company leadership on the signs of drinking during work hours and the risks involved with increased, excessive alcohol consumption. Encourage managers and teams to use videoconferencing to check in regularly and perhaps more frequently than usual.

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If an employee routinely looks tired, displays slurred speech, is frequently late to meetings, lacks engagement, or repeatedly refuses to use the video function, it’s time to bring the issue to the attention of HR.

Invest in Remote Work Training

For companies that have never implemented a work-from-home policy, this is uncharted territory for both management and their employees. Provide training on how to be productive, manage expectations, set and achieve key performance indicators (KPIs), and avoid common work-from-home pitfalls. For managers, include training on how to diagnose performance issues and hold employees accountable remotely.

With 32% of Americans saying they are more likely to drink during work hours while working remotely as compared with working in their typical workspace, a few actions can be taken now before the situation gets worse:

  • Create work-from-home guidelines to set expectations and parameters that include frequent check-ins with supervisors.
  • Establish accountability procedures such as sending daily recaps of completed tasks or timelines with deadlines that keep employees on track.
  • Include corrective action guidelines, and make it clear that poor performance and policy violations while working from home carry the same penalties as when working in the office.

You can take the extra step of requiring employees to sign off on these policies and corrective action procedures to document their agreement to ensure everyone is on the same page. Offering proactive guidance, education, and training provides employees at all levels with strategies that can help reduce the stress and uncertainty of the situation. This can help stave off the development of any unhealthy habits—including drinking on the job.

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Set a Good Company Example

Virtual company happy hours have become a popular way to stay connected with coworkers while everyone is still working remotely, but they can also contribute to the problem.

More than 7% of American adults struggle with an alcohol use disorder, and whether you’re aware of it or not, statistically, there’s a good chance some of your employee population is dealing with a substance use disorder or is in recovery. Even virtually, sponsoring a drinking-related function can tempt someone to relapse.

HR teams can provide a first line of defense against alcohol abuse by keeping certain precautions and sensitivities in mind. Instead of a virtual happy hour, find creative, sober ways to help keep employees connected, like a virtual coffee break instead.

Reinforce Your Open-Door Policy

While you cannot require employees to self-report addiction or a substance use disorder, creating an environment in which they feel comfortable to do so can be extremely valuable.

It’s important companies implement an open-door policy so employees feel comfortable going to their supervisor or HR if they’re struggling with stress or a difficult work situation or have an issue with substance use. If your company doesn’t already have an open-door policy in place, now is certainly the time to establish one and make it well known to staff.

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In some organizations, if an employee self-reports a relapse, leadership takes steps to make sure the person gets the treatment and support he or she needs to get back on track. However, if the employee is found to be using, that could be grounds for immediate termination. This is a critical distinction.

Approaching the situation from a nonthreatening, nonjudgmental perspective creates a context in which employees know they can get help rather than hiding in secret. Keeping those lines of communication open is crucial.

Make it clear to employees that if they’re struggling, it’s OK to raise their hand and ask for help from a mentor or HR. In addition, offer trainings to all managers and HR staff about substance use in the workplace, so they feel prepared to provide the right kind of support in those difficult conversations.

Proactively addressing drinking on the job as a remote worker not only protects your company from the potential risks but also provides employees with the support they need to keep them productive and healthy during this uncertain time.

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