The other COVID safety concern: Workplace impairment

The pandemic has worsened many underlying causes of workplace impairment, including drug and alcohol use, fatigue, and chronic stress. Here’s how employers can help.

As Oregon businesses gradually reopen after more than a year of COVID-19 disruptions, some healthy — and not-so-healthy — habits may be coming back to work with us.

Mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing are helpful behaviors that are likely to be around for a while. But what about the less healthy habits we've acquired — or doubled down on — while working from home or coping with the stress of frontline jobs, homeschooled kids, soar-ing unemployment, and social isolation?

A heavy toll

Pandemic stress has taken the heaviest toll on essential workers, parents, and communities of color. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, more than half of essential workers said they relied on unhealthy habits to get through the COVID crisis.

But no one is immune. Nearly one in four adults reported drinking more during the past year to manage their stress. We're also sleeping less and eating more. (The average pandemic weight gain was 30 pounds.)

In Oregon, sales of alcohol and marijuana rose by as much as 44% in early 2020 as bars and restaurants closed and people prepared for a lengthy lockdown.

And there's reason to believe all that pandemic drinking isn't limited to happy hour. In a national survey of 3,000 remote workers, 1 in 3 said they were more likely to imbibe while working at home during lockdown.

A broader view

Companies have long been concerned about the negative effects of drugs and alcohol on worker safety and productivity.

While substance use is a growing problem, employers increasingly are taking a broader view of impairment, including factors such as chronic stress, fatigue, and mental health.

The COVID crisis "has forced a whole new era of workplace safety," according to the National Safety Council, "one in which employers are grappling with increased substance use and misuse, as well as increased mental health distress, including depression and anxiety — medical conditions that frequently are interrelated."

Liz Hill, SAIF's Total Worker Health® adviser, cautions that it's also important to consider conditions inside the workplace — and in the job itself.

"Long shifts, high noise levels, chemical exposures — these can all contribute to impairment or make it harder to do your job well," Hill says.

How can employers help?

A well-crafted substance use and testing policy can be a first step toward addressing impairment concerns. On its own, however, it may not be enough.

"As supervisors, we aren't necessarily trained to identify health issues, nor do we encourage employers to cross that line," says Judi Croft, SAIF's safety services manager. For example, an employee who appears intoxicated on a video call could be experiencing a diabetic emergency or extreme fatigue.

If you think an employee or co-worker is having a medical emergency, seek immediate assistance. If substance use is suspected, you can refer to the "reasonable suspicion" clause in your policy for guidelines about how to proceed.

Often, the most effective approach is to focus on behavior.

"We usually see a productivity or work performance issue long before noticing that someone appears to be impaired," Croft says. Is an otherwise punctual employee repeatedly late for work or taking unusually long breaks? Has productivity or work quality declined? Are they communicating inappropriately with customers or co-workers?

By focusing on behavior, the conversation moves away from accusations and perceptions to specific performance issues. "You won't have to start playing the guessing game."

Support work-life balance

Performance issues often can be avoided by documenting and clearly communicating expectations before the job begins. Review expectations regularly and address problematic behaviors as soon as they arise.

When problems do arise, show compassion and sensitivity for whatever an employee may be going through. Make sure employees are aware of any resources offered by your company or in the community, including an employee assistance plan, mental health benefits, and substance abuse supports.

While it may be tempting to offer prescriptions, such as a sleep hygiene class for an employee with disrupted sleep, providing flexibility so that employees can take care of their personal needs can be a more supportive approach, suggests SAIF's Liz Hill.

Hill acknowledges that noticing behavior changes is even more challenging when many employees are still working remotely. It also places an extra burden on supervisors at a time when many are feeling more stressed themselves. "It's not easy for anybody right now," she says.

However, research shows that when supervisors show concern and support for employees' work-life challenges — whether that's chemical dependency or childcare concerns - companies benefit through improved employee health, job satisfaction, and team effectiveness. Workers even re-port lowered blood pressure and better sleep.

As we anticipate returning to work in a post-pandemic world, that's something we can all look forward to.

Read about new technology solutions for workplace impairment.

To learn more about the impacts of drugs and alcohol, stress, and other health issues on workplace safety and productivity, visit saif.com/promotehealth.

For resources and training on performance conversations, telework policies, and other HR topics, visit saif.com/HR.