At least 30 states are reporting spikes in fatal opioid overdoses and ongoing concern about mental illness or substance use disorders, all in connection with COVID-19.i To help employers address these interconnected issues, the National Safety Council (NSC) is calling on employers to prioritize employee stress, emotional and mental health both now and as they return employees to traditional work environments. Additionally, NSC warns employers that they must prepare for an increase in substance misuse – one that could be a serious threat to worker safety, and cost tens of thousands in productivity losses, absenteeism and presenteeism, and worker’s compensation claims if employees do not plan ahead.
The Council is sounding the alarm during National Safety Month, observed each June to raise awareness about the leading causes of preventable death and injury. Through its SAFER initiative, NSC is providing employers with resources and tools to address mental health concerns as part of the reopening process and assist employees through what has undoubtedly been a stressful period.
“Every single employee is facing an incredible amount of stress right now. Employees need mental health resources and support both in the immediate future and down the line,” said Lorraine M. Martin, president and CEO, National Safety Council. “Employees would benefit from having employer support through these difficult times. It can make a significant difference for their mental and physical health.”
In general, trauma, economic distress and unemployment increase risk for mental health issues and substance use disorders. The COVID-19 pandemic intensifies the threat of mental health distress in several ways, including stress caused by financial, employment, child/family care instabilities, as well as fear of themselves or loved ones being exposed to or infected by COVID-19. Extended social isolation can lead to the development of substance use disorders. Those with previous substance use disorders are even more vulnerable due to decreased accessibility to treatment, recovery supports and harm reduction services, all a result of the pandemic.
NSC lays out recommendations for employers in its Stress, Emotional and Mental Health Considerations Playbook. NSC also has created a how-to guide for addressing employee stress and anxiety regarding returning to work. The resources are part of a suite of tools developed as part of the NSC-led SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns initiative and its task force.
Each person will experience the stress and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic differently. Some may not show signs of or experience mental health distress for weeks or months. In the Stress, Emotional and Mental Health Considerations Playbook, NSC recommends employers build both short- and long-term responses to these mental health considerations and ensure mental health continues to be prioritized. The playbook also offers guidance to secure buy-in and engagement from leadership, management, human resources, communications and employees, which is critical for success.
Employers are in a unique position to spot signs and symptoms of misuse early, including impairment. NSC encourages employers to implement opioid policies and procedures as part of their return-to-operations strategy. Policy guidance is available in the NSC Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit. Drug overdose – primarily from opioids – is the leading cause of preventable death for American adults. In fact, a person is more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than a car crash.
Stress, emotional and mental health is one of six areas on which the SAFER task force has provided guidance to employers, including physical environments, medical issues, communication needs, external considerations and employment and human resources. For more information about NSC and the SAFER initiative, please visit nsc.org/safer.