grief and substance use

Supporting Employees Navigating Grief and Substance Use

Grief and substance use disorders have been considered taboo topics in the workplace for too long. With more than 600,000 lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and alcohol consumption on the rise, we face crises related to mental health and substance use disorders—along with the pandemic itself.

We spend about one-third of our lives working, so employers must tackle grief and substance use challenges if they hope to improve the health and well-being of their workforces. To do that, they will need to address the relationship between alcohol and grief in the workplace.

Statistically, your employees are struggling.

Heavy alcohol consumption has been climbing for years, but the pandemic further exacerbated this trend. Nielsen reported a 54 percent increase in national alcohol sales in early 2020 compared with early 2019. Meanwhile, online alcohol sales had surged by 262 percent since 2019.

In an online survey, 60 percent of respondents reported drinking more than before COVID-19 because of increased stress, increased availability of alcohol, and boredom. Participants who reported being stressed by the pandemic also consumed more drinks over a greater number of days. This study is yet another reminder that many people use alcohol to cope with distress in the absence of better tools. And for anyone living with alcohol use disorder before the pandemic, isolation and stress presented additional challenges in their recovery.

Beyond all of this, another influence on our relationship with alcohol that has become exacerbated and hyper-relevant in light of the pandemic is grief.

Grief Is Present and Evolving in Your Workforce

It’s estimated that one in three of your employees is grieving, which makes it important to understand what grief is: a normative (nonpathological) experience that involves emotional, physiological, and cognitive responses. It impacts our mood and behaviors such as sleep, appetite, and substance use.

Although there are common patterns in grief, it impacts every person differently and looks different for the same person over time. Grief is a process of adaptation, and people naturally move from “acute grief” to “integrated grief.”

Acute grief is how we typically envision grief. It includes an intense and persistent emotional experience, difficulty accepting the loss, and disconnection from one’s social and professional world. As a person learns to live with the reality of their loss, they move to integrated grief. This grief might not be as frequent or as intense, but it remains a part of a bereaved person forever.

All of this said, how do alcohol and grief interact and intersect?

The Relationship Between Grief and Substance Use

Dr. Dan Wolfson, a clinical psychologist specializing in grief and a Lantern.co advisor, says alcohol can slow or prevent the ability to move from acute grief to integrated grief. He also says it’s a form of avoidance.

“When grieving, we need to engage with our emotions rather than avoid them,” Wolfson says. “Our psychological immune systems are tapped, so people fall back on the coping strategies they’re familiar with—even maladaptive ones like alcohol use. So we have to be proactive in engaging healthy behaviors and access support systems early and often.”

Sabrina Spotorno is a therapist for Monument, an evidence-based online alcohol treatment platform. Spotorno has helped many of her patients navigate grief and alcohol use disorder simultaneously.

“Grief can feel incredibly isolating, and we can temporarily lose our sense of self,” she says. “That’s why alcohol can often serve as an artificial source of comfort and companionship. Once we regain our awareness of how much we are in need of community, we can regroup from our period of emotional isolation and find our safe people in support groups and in therapy. Holding space for all feelings, sensations, and experiences, including grief, is what enables healing and change.”

How to Promote Healing in Workplaces of Tomorrow

Recognizing the relationship between grief and substance use, particularly alcohol, and knowing that your employees might be struggling are important first steps. Shifting company culture to support team members is an ongoing practice. Here are four ways to make that transition:

1. Encourage self-care in company policies.

Spotorno recommends encouraging self-care at all times, including consistent and concrete company policies that support this stance: “Offering flexibility with schedules, encouraging time off, and designating company mental health days can be invaluable ways to create a company culture that promotes self-care.”

2. Create open communication channels.

You should also create open communication channels to support grieving employees. This lets you share your support in concrete ways and ask direct questions about how to best meet employees’ needs. Even companies that supply every resource possible to grieving employees can’t truly foster a supportive environment unless they openly communicate about that grief and create space for it.

3. Revisit your bereavement policies.

To address grief and loss as specific influential factors in alcohol use, Dr. Wolfson recommends revisiting your bereavement policies or ensuring you have a bereavement policy in place.

“Someone taking a week off for bereavement leave doesn’t mean they are coming back at 100 percent,” Wolfson says. “We need to build their endurance back up. Expect an employee to start at 40 percent. When people feel overloaded or overstressed, they’re going to regress to potentially unhealthy behaviors. Wouldn’t you prefer a healthy employee performing well at 40 percent than an unhealthy one struggling to meet 100 percent of former expectations? We all need to be given time to work our way back.”

4. Examine the role alcohol plays in your culture and environment

Finally, take a closer look at how alcohol shows up in your office. Challenge your own biases and consider these tips from sober entrepreneurs. Perform an audit of where alcohol shows up in your work environment, whether that’s physically in your office, at company events, or during celebratory moments.

If you’re still not sure how to get started, know that there are numerous incredible ways to help your workforce. You might share grief resources and tools with your employees through internal communications and expanded benefits policies. You can also provide anonymous community support and point team members to virtual, evidence-based online alcohol treatment, including therapy and medication. Finally, connect employees with outside support designed to help with the logistical side of bereavement and grief management.