COVID-19 And Substance Abuse

Working remotely because of COVID–19 could worsen addiction in Professional Addicts. A “Professional Addict” is someone working in the next office, at the next cubicle, or teaching our children.  Basically, anyone with a job.

As companies take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus and employees are encouraged to work remotely with the assistance of technology, people who are struggling with substance abuse or other addictive behaviors may sink deeper into their addictions.

Away from watchful eyes and many employees now masters of their own scheduled work hours, working remotely provides opportunity and isolation.

The guardrails of having to commute and be physically at work for eight hours are off. It is now possible to have a glass of wine at their desk or table instead of a cup of coffee.  Or to do some cocaine or smoke pot.  Afterall, who will know.

Or consider the person who is struggling with compulsive sexual behavior. They now have the opportunity to be online for hours, thinking there will always be time to catch up on their work later in the day.

In fact, Pornhub, which is one of the world’s most popular porn sites has just offered free premium memberships to Italians while they are in lockdown.  The free membership offer extends to April 3rd.

Pornhub states that this is “to help keep you company during these next weeks at home.”

Working at home requires discipline at the best of times.  Successful people who work from home maintain schedules, set goals and stick to them. The occasional trip to the refrigerator is treated like a coffee or lunch break and then it is back to task.  Working at home its not a free-for-all with no discipline.

When I first started working from home the temptation to goof off was pretty big.  I enjoyed sleeping in, surfing the internet, talking on the phone to my friends who were goofing off too.  I would mow the lawn while having a beer or get supper ready to impress my wife – of course while having a glass of wine.  Often, she wasn’t impressed.  Fortunately for me at the time, I was in a commission sales job so the goofing off business model wasn’t sustainable.

For a high percentage of people, it will be hard enough to adjust to working on their own, essentially unsupervised.  For those with addictions, which is on average about 9.4% of the workforce, it will be beyond hard.

Alcoholics and addicts have trouble with impulse control, staying in routines and staying focused. Their addicted tendencies include obsessing about drinking, using, or other addictive behaviors, compulsion and an inability to stop once they start engaging in their favorite substance or behavior.

Having to get out of bed, commute and arrive at work at a specific time has helped them keep some measure of control on their addiction. Having co-workers around, meetings to attend and people being able to physically see them and monitor their whereabouts and behavior offers at least eight or ten hours where they should be on their best behavior.

But if happy hour used to be at 5 and nobody is looking it could start at 3 or even earlier.

Combined with the isolation of working remotely, everyone is dealing with worries about job security, economic uncertainty and concerns about coming into contact with COVID-19 or having someone in their family getting sick.

This pandemic is putting untold stress on people in most walks of life and in times of stress people often increase substance use as a means of coping.  Particularly when other coping mechanisms such as working out, going to the theatre or out for dinner with friends are being discouraged.  Social distancing is a breeding ground for addiction, and other mental health issues.

School closures mean parents who would normally have five or six hours per day of productive work time if they are working from home, may be forced to have children at home with them while they try to keep up with job responsibilities.

All of this adds stress to an already stressful society.  I run my private therapy practice in an environment that has been hit hard by slowdowns, layoffs and companies going out of business.  The number of people coming to see me who have been struggling with addiction issues, increased substance use and relapses was already at an alarming level.

We have only begun to see the economic impacts of COVID-19.  Business forced to close their doors during shutdowns may not survive once the restrictions are lifted. A restaurant owner in my neighborhood said his business is down 60% since the outbreak in Canada and unless his landlord will give him a break on his rent, he will not survive.

The world as we know it will never be the same after this.  Companies will realize that they need to become leaner in the event of some other unforeseen crisis.  They will learn they can survive with less office space as they navigate remote employment and there will be more layoffs and permanent closures.

This means increased stress and the need for ways to cope.  For addicts and alcoholics, these are dangerous times.  12 Step and other support meetings are being cancelled, they are being forced to work from the isolation of home and they are stressed like never before.

People who are just inclined to have a few drinks every now and then, often increase their intake during periods of stress.

There are no easy answers but here is some advice.  If you are forced to work at home, keep the same routine you had when you were going to your place of work.  Get up at the same time, shower and get ready just like you are heading to work.  Be at your desk, table or on the phone at the same time.

Take regular scheduled breaks, just like when you are at the workplace.  Resist the urge to goof off, snack more than you normally would, watch TV or take naps during normal working hours.  Keeping your regular routine and work habits will make it easier when things return to normal.

Understand that if working remotely becomes a new normal for your company, the employees who are able to stay focused, on task and produce, will be the ones who are still employed if this crisis results in permanent layoffs.

From an addiction specialist’s perspective, don’t use substances or addictive behaviors as a coping tool.  This is high risk behavior at the best of times.  Meditate, exercise (even if you can’t go to the gym) and eat healthy. Use technology to stay connected.  That includes online support groups and online sessions with your therapist. Try to stay positive and remember: This too shall pass.

If you need help with substance abuse, check out our Substance Abuse Program.