Time to Rethink Those ZOOM Happy Hours?

Americans are drinking more during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nielsen reported that alcohol sales in stores was up 54% in late March compared to the same time last year and online sales were up almost 500% in late April. In a Morning Consult Poll, 16% of adults said they were drinking more during the pandemic, with Millennials most likely to be indulging (25%). Of course, factors contributing to behavior change may differ from one person to the next, but it seems clear that the stress of the pandemic has led to greater alcohol use in general. Certainly, stress is often a trigger for people in recovery.

It’s been estimated that alcohol use costs employers $249 billion annually – and that’s before the pandemic hit. Yet, as I discuss in a new article in Business Quarterly, despite this staggering cost relatively few employers – only about a third of those responding to our 2019 survey on workforce behavioral health – have taken any actions specifically to address alcohol abuse by employees. On the contrary, in some cases employers may unknowingly be contributing to the problem by using alcohol to celebrate business success and, more recently, to foster connectedness among remote workers during the pandemic by hosting Zoom happy hours.

In light of the pandemic, the need for employers to act has only become more pressing. Alcohol consumption has risen; physical distancing restrictions have made it more challenging to access treatment; and there’s emerging evidence that drinking may increase COVID-19 susceptibility and severity. The good news is there are some relatively simple steps employers can take to address the impact of alcohol in the workforce and positively affect the health and productivity of employees. You can leverage an existing employee assistance program to raise awareness of alcohol use risks and provide education and support. Review company policies regarding alcohol use, and train managers to avoid sending messages to employees that seem to tie alcohol to collegiality and success. Make sure that your well-being program promotes stress reduction using healthy coping strategies. In addition, you can learn about and consider evolving treatment options that provide assistance before someone “bottoms out.”

Employees struggling with an alcohol use disorder have different needs. The best employer offerings provide services that can help the employee no matter where they are in their relationship with alcohol. My article outlines specific actions you can take to address this important issue: Raise a Glass: The Socially Accepted Drug That’s Costing Your Business. And just FYI -- September is National Recovery Month, which makes this an especially appropriate time to get started.