What is the real cost of employee substance abuse?

'We're paying for those claims as an employer, but we don't know what's wrong with the person'

What is the real cost of employee substance abuse?

Caring for a worker’s mental health is becoming more critical lately and for many employers, this expense is rising due to a number of reasons.

One of these might be the rise in substance abuse, which has been  exacerbated during the pandemic, but there are newer resources that can help employers.

The number of people suffering from substance abuse has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years, says Hamilton Baiden, president at Heritage Health Solutions in Scottsdale, Ariz., and organizations must pay attention.

“There’s always been a huge issue but now it’s becomes so prevalent and, obviously, the pandemic has been a horrible thing for all of us and, unfortunately, a lot of people have lost their life. The only thing that it did that was good is it shined a light on this and people can’t avoid it anymore.”

Almost half of people surveyed by CAMH reported an increase in their drug use during the early part of the pandemic, while about one-third said their overdose risk has increased.

“People that have really good coping skills, they deal with it and they get through it; people that don’t, it can manifest in a lot of different ways: drinking too much, taking drugs… gambling,” says Baiden.

Connecting to health care

The problem is not only “diabolical,” says Baiden, it is often difficult for those afflicted to take that first step on the treatment path.

“Only about 10 per cent that struggle with substance abuse ever raise their hand and go get help, and so what happens is this manifests itself in other healthcare issues and we’re paying for those claims as an employer but we don’t know what’s wrong with the person.”

Baiden says he suffered from various psychological issues for years that included medication, psychiatrist visits and more, even while being a top executive, but one day his true trouble came to light.

“Lo and behold, it turned out that I had a problem with alcohol: I went to treatment, I got better. Guess what happened over time? All of those things went away: I didn’t see a psychiatrist every month anymore; I didn’t need to see a counselor after a certain period of time; I wasn’t on the anxiety medications anymore,” he says. “When people get better, health care costs go down.”

Save money while giving aid

But what can employers due to both rein in costs while still assisting ailing employees? It begins with dialogue, says Baiden.

“The first thing companies can do is they can stand up and say, ‘This is a safe place to talk; this is a stigma-free environment,’ and they can create opportunities for employees to get the help they need.”

But employers also “need to figure out a way to help the 90 per cent of people that are never going to do that and that is what our company is very focused on,” he says.

Despite an increased focus on health-care solutions in the workplace, the majority of those surveyed said it’s still not enough.

Employing a virtual mental health service is a good way for those who might have trouble admitting they have a problem, says Baiden.

“For someone to have to walk into a clinic or drive across town to get help, people don’t want [other] people to see them doing that. We shouldn’t be that way but, unfortunately, as a society right now, we’re all trying to fight that and so having accessibility by virtual is a phenomenal avenue for individuals to get help, it will absolutely increase utilization and create increased support for people that need help.”

Heritage CARES, the company’s virtual health-care solution, includes a series of educational videos called YouTurn.

“An interesting statistic I learned recently is 46 per cent of people that get better from substance misuse actually do it on their own: They get educated, they learn, they get hope, they get advice, and they start to course-correct. They change their behaviour, and it doesn’t lead into full-blown addiction,” says Baiden.

As well, the program offers peer-coaching, in which a like-minded person partners with the employee seeking help, and this has proved to be a real boon for those who are suffering, he says.

“Really, the idea is it’s using love, it’s using motivation, positive psychology, motivational interviewing, it’s getting a connection with that person, and then starting them down this journey.”

Finally, there is the care management platform that includes the “gold standard” in suicide prevention, he says, which is the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS).

“If an individual comes back as medium- or high-risk for suicide, we have a live intervention to that person within 20 to 30 seconds, and then get them the help that they need,” says Baiden.

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