Originally published in HR News, January 2021

By Peter Loeb

One of the many side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an alarming rise in mental health issues. Because this has received so little attention mental health professionals are referring to it as a silent pandemic.

An increase in substance use often accompanies increased stress, depression and other mental health challenges. Approximately half of all individuals who are diagnosed with mental disorders are also dealing with substance abuse, and vice versa.

Even before the pandemic hit, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that almost 11 million full-time workers in the United States had substance use disorders, or SUDs. As a result, U.S. employers absorb a large portion of the associated health care costs while also taking financial hits from absenteeism and loss of productivity. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, SUDs cost U.S. employers more than $740 billion every year in lost workplace productivity, health care expenses and criminal activity.

There are also costs associated with turnover due to employees with SUDs being unable to keep their jobs. According to the Center for American Progress, the average cost to employers for recruiting and training replacement workers is 21 percent of an employee’s annual salary. SUDs in the workplace also contribute to 65 percent of on-the-job accidents and somewhere between 38 percent and 50 percent of all workers’ compensation claims. At the human level, employees’ struggles with SUDs impact coworkers who must pick up extra assignments or shifts. Team members can also find it challenging to work effectively with someone who is battling addiction.

An individual with an SUD is at risk financially and emotionally, and their employer can play an important, frontline role in supporting them. As public health officials warn that the current health crisis will worsen before we see the benefits of a coronavirus vaccine, organizational leaders must take action to address the needs of employees who are struggling. Expanding mental health benefits can be essential to maintaining a healthy and productive workforce.

What Employers Can Do

The Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act require that health plans treat mental health issues and SUDs the same way they treat physical illnesses and injuries. Consequently, mental health and SUD coverage must be comparable to coverage for general medical and surgical care. Copayments, visit limits and preauthorization requirements must also be generally similar regardless of the reason for seeking care.

But merely providing in-person mental health and SUD benefits will not suffice, especially now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued updates on the increase in substance use since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to documenting more alcohol and drug use to cope with pandemic-related stress and emotions, researchers have concluded that expanded use of telehealth has helped with delivering treatment for SUDs and underlying or related mental health conditions, including depression and suicidal ideation.

Organizational leaders should take notice and act quickly to add and promote online SUD treatment services as part of their workplace mental health benefits. Such treatment services are already widely available. For instance, online SUD care provider Lionrock Recovery tripled its clinical practice and support group offerings throughout 2020. Since February of last year, Lionrock added more than 70 new therapists and support staff to handle online sessions with patients and support group participants.

The Benefits of the Online SUD Treatment Benefit

At least 10 percent of any given workforce—from entry-level employees all the way to executives in the C-suite—is in need of help with SUDs. Yet, barriers to care such as cost, location and stigma lead to only approximately 14 percent of those in need accessing professional treatment.

Telehealth is one of the most effective ways to reach and treat people with SUDs, and there is no doubt that more employers will offer this benefit going forward. One important reason that online treatment works to support recovery is that it reduces the shame and stigma people often experience when they seek help.

Offering a telehealth solution makes employees more likely to receive treatment at all because the system allows them to ask for and participate in treatment in a private, comfortable and familiar setting such as their own home. This means that even in the midst of a pandemic, employers can make safe and effective treatment available to employees who are sheltering in place or simply working remotely.

Online SUD treatment also comes at a fraction of the cost of in-person behavioral health care services. Then, in addition to lower spending on claims, employees who seek treatment online miss less work than those who visit clinics or counselors’ offices.

The most important reason employers must adopt and promote online treatment options for their employees is its efficacy. A recent survey of Lionrock clients revealed that 80 percent were abstinent at 18 months after discharge from treatment, which is twice the national average. Additionally, prevention and treatment programs have been proven to be effective in terms of improving productivity among employees with SUDs. One analysis published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment showed that employees who received help saw unplanned absences decrease by 85 percent and discipline problems decrease by 75 percent.

Employers need to do everything they can to encourage employees to access SUD treatment online or in person. Mental health significantly impacts the overall health of an organization, and the effects of 2020 will be felt well into, and perhaps beyond, 2021.

Peter Loeb is the CEO and co-founder of Lionrock Recovery, a pioneer in providing telehealth services for substance use disorders. Connect with him at linkedin.com/in/peterloeb/