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The Pandemic Within the Pandemic

The rise of substance abuse in the COVID era.

Guest post by Karen Perham-Lippman, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging Program Manager for Lumen

With the rise of substance abuse and mental health issues amid COVID, we are experiencing a pandemic within a pandemic. Alcohol sales rose nationally in 2020 by 262% comparative to the prior year (Pollard et al., 2020). A review and meta-analysis of 72 studies on SARS or severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and COVID-19 found that more than 15% of patients were experiencing insomnia, mood swings, and other mental health-related trauma (Lake, 2020). While a 2020 study of hospitalized adults found 31% of patients experienced neuropsychiatric complications, with 60% of those meeting the diagnostic criteria for psychiatric diagnosis (Lake, 2020). In 2020, according to Robeznieks, the American Medical Association reported that drug-related overdoses reached nearly 75,000 deaths, with 40 states expressing ongoing concerns for individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorder (SUD). Coping with mental health, anxiety, depression, and social distancing has only exacerbated during the pandemic.

Within organizations, mental health in the workplace is the “coming revolution,” according to Pfeffer and Williams (2020). A study of more than 36,000 respondents, 62% of with mood and 76% with anxiety disorders, and 81% with SUD do not receive treatment due to poor public acceptance of mental health and substance use and the need for reform payment approaches to insurance coverage (Pfeffer & Williams, 2020).

Furthermore, Pfeffer and Williams (2020) point out that the pervasive and expensive nature of mental health and SUD as behavioral health conditions become costly for organizations due to healthcare expenditures, turnover, and reduced employee productivity. However, companies that take the lead by making mental health resources and services accessible are simultaneously ensuring improved employee outcomes which ultimately increases overall organizational performance. A recent McKinsey survey of 1,000 employers identified more than 90% reported that the COVID-19 crisis has affected both employee productivity and behavioral health (Coe et al., 2020). Moreover, Pfeffer and William (2020) indicate that employees' demand for employers to focus on mental health and addiction is growing as a recent study by Ginger, an on-demand mental health platform for employers, found 91% of respondents believed companies should care about emotional health and 85% were evaluating behavioral health benefits when considering a new job.

Like so many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges for supporting the over 20 million adults aged 18 or older who have (SUD). The efforts to support those struggling with behavioral health issues must be met with awareness and action by organizational leaders.

A key strategy includes making transparency a priority by continuing to address the stigma associated with mental health and addiction as well as people asking for help. For example, SAP created a virtual team of organizational leaders which included those representing their products, customer engagement, human resources, and the diversity & inclusion officer and their chief medical officer to educate employees about mental health, seeking assistance and supporting organizational members who are struggling. More importantly, SAP’s philosophy is that mental health initiatives are a diversity and inclusion, product, employee and customer engagement, and brand conversation (Hunt et al., 2020).

What can you do to address both transparency and stigma? Pfeffer and William (2020) suggest:

  • Measure the behavioral health of your employees.
  • Explore online services and interventions such as Talkspace, Calm, and BetterHelp.
  • Hold leaders accountable for employee progress.
  • Audit existing behavioral health coverage and address existing gaps.

2021 employers are projected to increase the measurement of employee stress levels by nearly 40%, for which the use of the GHQ-12 or 12-item General Health Questionnaire which contains three factors; anxiety and depression, social dysfunction, and loss of confidence is suggested (Pfeffer & William, 2020). It has been translated into 38 languages and has been extensively validated worldwide, offering companies the best opportunity to measure progress while also benchmarking mental health status.

Addressing stigma associated with mental health and SUD must also include recognition that these are complex brain disorders rather than moral weakness or flawed character. The important thing is that recovery needs are as unique as the individuals struggling with mental health and SUD. While many rehab facilities, treatment centers, outpatient services, support meetings, and individual therapy are a part of treatment and recovery, these resources have also had to transition from in-person to online, telehealth, or phone consultations to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The American Society of Addiction Medicine or ASAM and Alcoholics Anonymous provide resources, access to online meetings, and more depending on what individuals need and can serve as complementary resources to those provided by employers.

Lastly, Kelly et al.’s (2017) study found that 22.35 million adults or 9.1% of the population have resolved substance abuse problems. With 157 million Americans making up the U.S. workforce, that is 15% of employees having potentially utilized recovery programs or services. For those of us who have experienced the challenging, meaningful, and deeply reflective work of the recovery process not only can we help those that reach out to us in need, but we also have the opportunity to share our transformative journeys and leadership skills that are developed through the process with others. Reducing stigma also means acknowledging that those who go through a recovery process bring that experience and learning into their role in the workplace. For example, there are numerous spiritual principles associated with the 12-step recovery process: acceptance, hope, faith, courage, honesty, patience, humility, willingness, brotherly-love, integrity, self-discipline, and service. Many of these behaviors are similar to those referred to when describing transformational leadership, such as “developing and articulating a vision, providing a positive role model, and motivating employees to look beyond their self-interest for the good of the group” (Bass & Riggio, 2006).

Merging the principles of recovery with the art of leadership can lead to a unique intersection of wisdom and encouragement (Utley, 2017) that ensures greater success in organizations. Hope catalyzes recovery which provides a framework for vision. Recovery is person-focused engaging empathy and the empowerment of others. The recovery community is richly diverse, fostering inclusive practices, awareness of others, and a sense of belonging. The mentoring that occurs through sponsorship evolves a deep commitment to learning for both self and others. It is a commitment to growth. Recovery is a process that we participate in with others in the same way leadership is ... as leaders we are in a relationship with those we lead, it is not something we are doing to people, rather with people.

I recently had the opportunity to join Maureen Ross Gemme, CEO and Founder of Emerge Leadership Academy and author of Emerge: 7 Steps to Transformation (No Matter What Life Throws at You!), for her Emerge. Evolve. Lead. For People in Recovery podcast to discuss the intersection of recovery and leadership. I hope that sharing my story might help bring additional transparency as well as contributing to the decrease in perceived stigma for those who may be struggling with mental health and SUD or considering implementing additional organizational mental health resources and interventions.

Karen Perham-Lippman leads Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Programs for a global Fortune 500 technology company and is a doctoral student at Eastern University earning her Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. Connect with Karen on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.


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Hunt, S., Fitter, F., & Park, L. (2020, December 15). Why Mental Health Matters. SAP Insights.

Kelly, J. F., Bergman, B. G., Hoeppner, B. B., Vilsaint, C. L., & White, W. L. (2017). Prevalence and pathways of recovery from drug and alcohol problems in the United States population: Implications for practice, research, and policy. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 181(Supplement C), 162-169. doi:

Lake, J. (2020, October 27). The Mental Health Pandemic Calls for a Strategic Initiative that Emphasizes Integrative Health Care. Psychiatric Times.…

Lindberg, S. (2020, April 28). Addiction During the Coronavirus Pandemic. Verywell Mind.…

Pfeffer, J., & Williams, L. (2020, December 8). Mental health in the workplace: The coming revolution. McKinsey & Company.…

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Robeznieks, A. (2020, November 4). The pandemic’s not over, and the overdose epidemic is getting worse. American Medical Association.…

Utley, T. (2017, October 6). How the Values of Recovery Can Transform the Way You Lead.…

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