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 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.

The Blanket of Bereavement Policy Is Chilly

Bereavement, the period of time of mourning following the death of a beloved person. It can be one of the most devastating experiences for many of us. For employers, we are forced to tie metrics to this extremely personal experience with our bereavement policies. We literally quantify our employees’ grief.

This begs me to question why we thought this was a good idea in the first place?

We knew it was unethical and downright cruel to ask someone to clock-in after experiencing a death in the family. At its core, we thought we were simply showing our staff we care. We wanted them to grieve. We wanted them to heal. Therefore, we implemented, what is now considered standard, three days off. Not only did we put a maximum number of days employees are allowed to mourn, we also implemented stipulations around who it is okay to mourn for. Most policies today encompass immediate family members: Mom, Dad, kids, etc. The logic behind this criterion was to ensure no one took advantage of the policy right?

While there are plenty of articles out there detailing how companies need to give more than three days and broaden the criteria to encompass those outside of immediate family, what I advocate for is much different – eliminate this blanket policy we call bereavement all together.

Here are the top 3 issues with bereavement policies: 

#1 The experience of grief is unique to each individual

Some of us deal with grief by powering through. We stay busy. Out of sight, out of mind. I remember working for a VP of HR when she lost her mother. We had the standard 3 days and she did not take a single day. When I asked her why she said, “If I go home it will just make it worse. I want to be here where I am useful.” I told her I understood and left it alone. However, many of her peers were not as observant. She had a revolving door for days on end of people asking why she had not taken her three bereavement days. I ended up asking her to share that experience with me a few months after and oh boy… did she vent. She went on and on and on about how thankful she was that people cared but how their constant questioning about why she didn’t use the days made her grief so much worse. She was constantly forced to think about her loss. For this HR pro, the very policy she implemented to help others cope with grief, actually caused her more grief.

#2 Sometimes the passing of a pet is worse than the passing of human

It’s hard to imagine for some, but the death of a pet is a significant loss for many people. I lost my best buddy a couple years ago – a Jack Russell. To say I was a train wreck would be an understatement. I literally could not function, let alone put on a pretty face and be productive at work. On the contrary, had my stepmother passed away I could have walked into work in a day as nothing had happened. The criteria stipulating who we are allowed to take time off to grieve for does nothing to benefit our staff.

#3 Some need a couple hours, some need a couple months or even years

The problem with telling our staff they have 3 days to cry it out is that everyone handles grief in different ways and on different time tables. Many would assume that a parent losing their child needs much more than 3 days to “get over it”. Others, depending on who they lost, relationship with that person, so on and so forth, may only need a day. The 3 day rule, or any fixed measurement period for that matter, is not conducive to our overall goal which is for our employee to heal.

I challenge all HR Pros to eliminate their bereavement policies and implement a catch all bucket called time off. Determine what your company can budget for paid time away and let our staff use this as they see fit – sick days, I had to put Lassie down days, vacation in Europe or even I’m hung-over and can’t get off the couch days. Should your employee need more than the allotted paid time off, let them take it unpaid. The circumstances surrounding why they need to be out is irrelevant to the company and the budget. This does not mean we do not care about them, it means we are allowing them to tell us what they need.

Hire people you trust to do a good job, treat them like adults, take the time to align their values with the company, continually invest in their professional and personal development and let them determine their best way to grieve a loved ones’ passing.

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