We’ve all seen the memes: shopping carts overflowing with “essentials” like beer and liquor, daily schedules that include an adult beverage every few hours, and “single serving” wineglasses that hold the entire bottle.

For most, it’s a joke, hyperbole meant to bring some levity to the difficult situation we’ve found ourselves in these past few months. But for the 1 in 10 Americans struggling with addiction, it’s no laughing matter. The combination of isolation, stress, and fear is a recipe for relapse for those in recovery — and a potential path to trouble even for social drinkers who now have more free time than ever.

For HR professionals, the threat is especially concerning. With millions of employees having to adjust to working from home practically overnight, maintaining performance and accountability is already challenging. Add in the fact that one in three American employees say they are more likely to drink alcohol during working hours while quarantined and the stakes are even higher. HR professionals must find a way to get ahead of this issue before it becomes problematic, not only for the company’s sake, but also for employees, who may need more mental health support than ever to cope with the isolation and stress.

As our national lockdown extends through the month of April and beyond in some areas, it happens to coincide with Alcohol Awareness Month, making this the perfect time to reinforce education around the risks of alcohol use in the remote workplace.

Know the Signs

When faced with adversity, many may look to alcohol to alleviate their stress. Particularly when confined to your home with less work to do than usual, it can be tempting to grab a drink during the workday. In fact, 35 percent of Americans say they are drinking more alcohol while self-isolating.

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

HR professionals can start by educating managers and company leaders on the signs of drinking during work hours and the risks posed by increased, excessive alcohol consumption. Encourage managers and teams to use phone and video conferencing to check in regularly, at least several times a week. If an employee routinely looks sleepy, lacks engagement, repeatedly refuses to use the video function, displays slurred speech, or is frequently tardy, it’s time to bring the issue to the attention of HR.

Set a Good Example

Virtual happy hours have become a popular way to stay connected with coworkers during isolation, but they can also contribute to the problem. By some estimates, more than 12 percent of American adults struggle with an alcohol use disorder. Whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a good chance a portion of your employee population is dealing with a substance use disorder or in recovery. Sponsoring a drinking-related function, even virtually, can tempt someone to relapse.

HR teams can provide a first line of defense against alcohol abuse by taking certain precautions. Instead of a virtual happy hour, find creative sober ways to keep employees connected, like virtual charades, online games, or a virtual book club or other hobby group. Not only are these healthier ways to socialize, but they also make everyone feel welcome, including those who choose not to drink for whatever reason.

Reinforce Your Open-Door Policy

Presumably, your company already has an open-door policy encouraging employees to come to their supervisors or HR reps if they’re struggling with work or personal issues. If not, now is certainly the time to establish one and promote it to your staff members.

While you cannot require employees to self-report addiction or substance use disorders, creating an environment in which they feel comfortable to do so can be extremely valuable. For example, in some organizations, if an employee self-reports a relapse, leadership takes steps to make sure they get the treatment and support they need to get back on track. But, if the employee is found to be using, it’s grounds for immediate termination. That distinction is critical. When you approach the situation from a non-threatening, non-judgmental perspective, it creates a context in which employees know they can get help rather than hiding in secret.

Keeping those lines of communication open is crucial. As humans, we don’t grow from being perfect — we grow from falling down, learning to get up, and trying not to fall down again the same way. Make it clear that it’s okay for employees to reach out to a mentor or HR if they’re struggling. 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.

Invest in Remote-Work Training

For companies that have never implemented a work-from-home policy, this is uncharted territory for both managers and employees. It’s likely that all your workers would appreciate training on how to be productive, manage expectations, set and achieve KPIs, and avoid common pitfalls in this new environment. For managers, include training on how to diagnose performance issues and hold employees accountable remotely.

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 to stave off the development of unhealthy habits, including drinking on the job.

Establish and/or Reinforce Substance Abuse Policies

Many companies already have substance abuse policies, and now is a good time to remind employees those policies still apply even while everyone is working from home. With so many Americans saying they are more likely to drink during work hours while operating from home, companies should take action now before the situation gets worse. Here are a few key steps to consider:

  1. Create work-from-home guidelines to set expectations and parameters that include frequent check-ins with supervisors.
  2. Establish accountability procedures, such as daily recaps of completed tasks or timelines that keep employees on track.
  3. Include corrective action guidelines and make it clear poor performance and policy violations while working from home carry the same penalties as when working in the office.
  4. Require employees to sign off on these policies and corrective action procedures to document their agreement and ensure everyone is on the same page.

Proactively addressing drinking on the job during quarantine not only protects your company from the potential risks but also provides employees with the support they need to stay productive, engaged, and healthy during this uncertain time.

With our everyday habits drastically changing and our daily routines broken, companies are in the position to provide a sense of stability, relative normalcy, and purpose for employees. By establishing resources and policies to help navigate this new normal, HR professionals can play a key role in employees’ success amid the stress, uncertainty, and isolation.

Tim Stein is vice president of human capital for American Addiction Centers.

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