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EAPs & Mental Health: The Hidden Side of Substance Abuse

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Mental health has always been a 'hidden' challenge for employees, but as time goes on, more people are working together to crush the stigma of talking about and seeking assistance for mental health

The discussion has become a hot topic since more employees are working from home, and in-person interactions between coworkers and employees are less frequent. Under these circumstances, it can be all too easy for mental health to be a forgotten element — and more often than not, it's swept under the rug.

According to the CDC, the COVID-19 pandemic has done a lot more than isolate employees to their homes. Government research shows that following the pandemic, around 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use — 31% reported anxiety/depression symptoms, 26% reported trauma/stressor-related disorder symptoms, 13% started or increased substance abuse, and 11% seriously considered suicide. 

For these reasons and more, mental health and substance abuse support should be prioritized better in the workplace.




Mental health and substance abuse are strongly correlated, regardless of which one they start with. In most cases, if someone is diagnosed with one, they have or will be diagnosed with the other. Not only can an employee with mental health issues become more susceptible to substance abuse, but their conditions can also worsen after several uses.25

According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), "When an individual develops a mental illness, associated changes in brain activity may increase the vulnerability for problematic use of substances by enhancing their rewarding effects, reducing awareness of their negative effects, or alleviating the unpleasant symptoms of the mental disorder or the side effects of the medication used to treat it."

As for worsening conditions, they report evidence supporting the connection between bipolar disorder (and other mental health issues) and the negative impact in progression by periods of cocaine (and other drugs) use. 

On the other hand, substance abuse can also lead to mental health issues. NIH says this is because "drug use that precedes the first symptoms of a mental illness may produce changes in brain structure and function that kindle an underlying predisposition to develop that mental illness."

It's not a new discovery/correlation. In fact, it's a topic that has been discussed for generations before us. Psychology Today reports an increase in mental health issues between the 1930s and 1990s — influencing more studies presented in academic journals like JOEM, which has been publishing articles for more than two decades that researched, evaluated, and stated that "anger, stress, and depression in the workplace are growing concerns."



Mental health and substance abuse were already on the rise and becoming a topic of concern. The COVID effect refers to the spike in numbers of people triggered into mental health conditions following the pandemic or experiencing a worsening impact on their mental health.

In fact, KFF has found that the average share of adults reporting symptoms of Anxiety Disorder and/or Depressive Disorder has increased 30.1% in just under two years — up 41.1% in January 2021 from 11.0% in January-June 2019. These findings increase the importance of noticing and assisting employees who've experienced either one of these effects.27-1

However, with less frequent human interaction and more frequent work-from-home capabilities, it is increasingly difficult to identify these correlations in coworkers. This can become problematic if not addressed, considering more people are prone to these issues today than to those in just 2019, prior to the outbreak. 

With a strong correlation between substance abuse and mental illness — they can both affect each other and build on one another — there is also a rising concern for employees who have experienced this spike in mental illness to look to substance abuse as a form of treatment. According to NIH, "multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa."



EAPs are an employer-sponsored employee assistance plan introduced to give workers access to and receive assistance with personal/work-related problems that can be detrimental to their mental, emotional, and physical well-being — oftentimes influencing job performance and behavior as well.

Comprehensive EAPs can help identify and assist employees in resolving any personal issues that can affect the workplace, including substance/alcohol abuse, financial difficulties, emotional struggles, and more.

When developing your EAP solution, focusing on a variety of areas that employees struggle with is essential. With that being said, mental health and substance abuse are likely more prevalent in this area of assistance than you may realize.

In fact, studies have shown that more than 70% of people struggling with drug or alcohol use disorders are employed and in need of recovery support. That percentage is too high to ignore the need for additional guidance in both areas. 



The first step to adequate support and better employee health is knowledge. The more you know about the subject, the better prepared you and your employees will be in not only recovering from common challenges and struggles but preventing them from happening or becoming a bigger problem.

The next step is adopting an EAP program that best fits you and your employees — one that encompasses and provides resources and solutions for a variety of stressors related to decreased productivity and quality of work, high turnover rates, and a decline in employee morale and engagement. 

Continue educating yourself and your employees with more resources and insight into the impact mental health and substance abuse have on the workforce and the best practices for preventing, identifying, treating, and supporting those who need the assistance most. 

When you're ready, contact our team at Employee Recovery for more information on EAP substance abuse and workplace substance abuse programs. The journey to recovery can be a long one, so it's always better to integrate assistance as soon as possible — we're here to help you through the process.


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