The annual economic impact of Substance Use Disorders (SUD) on the employment sector amounts to millions in lost time, productivity and income. And according to the Achkar Law company, employees are at greater risk to develop unhealthy habits while working from home during the Covid pandemic.

“The challenge to determine whether an employee experiences SUD problems is indeed much bigger when working remotely,” says Dr Breggie Smook, one of the speakers at the upcoming Addiction Conference 2021. “The options for face-to-face meetings and open discussion are less. Employers should, however, treat the situation the same as at the physical workplace. They still have an obligation to provide the opportunity for appropriate prevention, treatment, counselling, and rehabilitation.”

The conference is scheduled to take place from 21-23 July and is hosted by the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA). This inaugural platform will bring together SUD treatment and other medical professionals to collaborate with providers, policy makers and regulators to create effective and long-lasting solutions to address the public health crisis posed by SUD.

Managing SUDs when Working from Home

Smook says employers need to focus on reinforcing the open-door-policy when employees work remotely.

“This can be achieved by creating work-from-home-guidelines, including those on risky substance use behavior,” she notes. “Arrange regular private discussions to monitor their performance and wellbeing during the pandemic.”

She adds that it is much more difficult to identify the obvious SUD signs and symptoms in the absence of physical contact, therefore managers and employees should be educated on early signs and symptoms, and the devastating impact SUD has on the business.

“Collaboration is the golden thread to intentionally create and sustain changes to combat the problem of SUD more effectively in the workplace,” Smook urges.

Strategies to Deal with SUD Stigmatisation in the Physical Workplace

According to Smook, South Africa took a step in the right direction by decentralising mental illness care to primary health care workers.

“But one element of mental health that is still very much stigmatised is addiction, even though it is medically recognised as a preventable, treatable chronic disease.”

She cites Brohan and Thornicroft (2010), McCann et al (2011), and Roche et al (2018) when recommending strategies to reduce SUD-related stigma at work. “Firstly, companies should adopt a culture of concern for employees within a broad health and wellbeing framework.”

Smook adds that employers should also ensure that staff is informed on the different Labour Law Acts regarding their rights and responsibilities.

“Policies and procedures must be established to formalise the company’s commitment to support people living with SUD. This can be achieved by promoting the use of factual, rather than emotive and discriminatory language in discussions and personal files. Also ensure similar treatment of staff with SUD related problems and those with other health conditions.”

Smook advises that a list of external treatment resources should be accessible for all employees if they need professional and specialised guidance.