Digital tools can help employees struggling with addiction

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As employees continue to grapple with mental health and substance abuse issues during COVID-19, digital tools can be a critical component in recovery, while reducing healthcare costs for employers.

Of the more than 21 million people with substance use disorders in the U.S., just 10% seek treatment, due to stigma and other barriers to care. But employees with addictions cost employers $740 billion annually, from lost productivity and healthcare costs, according to American Addiction Centers.

“Addiction as a whole has long been known to have a tremendous impact for an employer,” says Dr. Yusuf Sherwani, founder of Quit Genius, a digital substance abuse clinic. “The typical cost for somebody with an addiction is going to be about three times as much as somebody without an addiction. Then there's the mental health impact on time taken off work and overall productivity in the job.”

Traditional treatments like rehab and support groups like AA have all but disappeared during the pandemic, says Dan Jolivet, workplace possibilities practice consultant at the Standard Insurance Company. Without support, substance abuse issues can spiral out of control.

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“Many people who are dealing with addictions go to 12-step self-help like Alcoholics Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous. All of those face-to-face meetings have moved to virtual,” he says. “The isolation has led to more relapses, as people who were abstaining from alcohol and drugs are using that as a way to cope with stress.”

To help employees struggling with substance abuse, making treatment accessible should be a top priority for employers, Sherwani says. His platform, Quit Genius, seeks to destigmatize addiction and offers digital cognitive behavioral therapy, telemedicine options and access to clinical care teams to prescribe medications proven to assist in addiction recovery.

Sherwani says he founded the platform after seeing shortcomings in the way the healthcare system treats people with addictions.

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“Outside of diagnosing people, giving them a label and then prescribing all the pills and potions that we think are going to help them, there wasn’t a touch point along the way,” he says. “At its core, addiction is a chronic disease and nobody chooses to become addicted to drugs any more than they choose to develop heart disease. That's why it's all about providing long-term chronic condition management.

In October, Quit Genius partnered with Cigna’s health services platform Evernorth. Sherwani says they’ve seen an increase in utilization during the pandemic, as well as increased interest from employers across industries looking for digital healthcare solutions.

“Many of these employers haven't traditionally been at the forefront of using digital health interventions to help their workforce,” he says. “They had more traditional approaches with onsite clinics or wellness coordinators. Quit Genius can help empower what’s already there, as another tool in their toolkit.”

In addition to prescribing and tracking medication usage of users, Quit Genius provides one-on-one coaching and support. Addressing the mental health component of addiction with an open dialogue in the workplace can be a powerful intervention for employees who are struggling.

“We're making a lot of progress, and what's really helped is having the discussion around mental health,” he says. “When leadership starts having this discussion around what they find challenging from either a mental health or addiction standpoint, that really does filter down to the rest of the organization.”

While identifying substance use disorders is more difficult in a virtual environment, employers shouldn’t shy away from reaching out if they suspect an employee is dealing with an addiction, Jovliet says. Having a list of resources and benefits at the ready is critical to getting employees the help they need.

“When an employee says, ‘I'm struggling because I'm drinking,’ you want to be able to let them know about available benefits. Let them know very specifically what their benefits are and how to access them,” he says. “If you're struggling with drug abuse, you're not going to want to have to search around for resources. Managers and supervisors have an opportunity to be really helpful in terms of identifying the problem and providing solutions.”

The more comfortable employers get with discussing these challenges, while providing digital health support, the easier it will be for employees to take advantage of benefits that help them be their best, Sherwani says.

“It's the responsibility of an employer to show that it's very safe to seek treatment and that there's no penalty for accessing treatment,” he says. “Employers want their employees to be successful because it will help the organization be successful.”

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Chronic care Telehealth Controlled substances Opioid abuse Mental health benefits HR Technology Resource Center Cigna