In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, people found different ways of coping, from baking sourdough bread to clapping for health-care heroes to drinking ‘quarantinis’ during Zoom happy hours.

While the baking, clapping and drinking has tapered off for many, some employees have struggled with substance use as the pandemic drags on. But many employers across Canada are stepping up to provide support to struggling staff in these difficult times.

Some of those struggling have turned to substance use more often over the past 25 months, says Lawrence Blake, a certified psychological health and safety advisor for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Ontario.

Read: Employees unsure whether employer provides substance abuse resources

Indeed, a January 2022 survey by the CMHA found one in four Ontarians are consuming more substances in comparison to pre-pandemic usage. Among those respondents, 77 per cent cited alcohol, followed by cannabis (38 per cent) and tobacco (27 per cent). At the same time, the survey found nearly half (48 per cent) of Ontarians said their mental health has worsened since the crisis began, up from 36 per cent at the start of the pandemic.

“There’s a nexus between mental health and substance use,” says Blake. “I used to be a smoker, so when I was feeling a bit stressed I’d go to cigarettes or use tobacco. This happens when we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed — we’ll turn to things that immediately make us feel better.”

But often what makes people feel better in the short term can have long-term impacts on their mental and physical health.

While about 21 per cent of the Canadian population will meet the criteria for addiction in their lifetime, according to the CMHA, substance use issues exist along a wide spectrum, ranging from drinking more wine than initially intended to a physical dependence on a substance.

Read: As substance abuse rises amid pandemic, employers can help

During these tumultuous times, employers are keen to help employees cope. “Like all companies that have had to shift to a remote working model, there are challenges,” said Kim Walcott, senior manager of total rewards at CSA Group, in an emailed statement to Benefits Canada.

“We encourage managers to communicate openly and often with employees to give them the best opportunity to pick up on signs that employees may be struggling. We have offered mental-health first-aid training to managers to increase awareness and sensitivity to early signs of distress. CSA Group is focused on maintaining a culture of caring that prioritizes transparency, safety and empathy.”

By the numbers

Surveys conducted for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health throughout the pandemic have found people have consistently struggled with mental-health issues and binge drinking over the past two years. The latest survey, by Delvinia for the CAMH in early 2022, found:

25.4% of Canadians said they’ve recently engaged in binge drinking;

25.1% said they’ve experienced moderate to severe anxiety;

24.1% said they felt lonely; and

22.3% said they felt depressed.

As part of the organization’s empathetic culture, it regularly encourages feedback from staff through engagement surveys. As a result, it has rolled out a virtual health solution for alcohol and substance use disorders for eligible employees and their dependants in Canada. The online platform provides a private and confidential alternative to traditional residential rehabilitative therapy, meaning it allows employees and/or their dependants to enter into treatment while continuing to work and live at home.

Additionally, CSA Group offers a range of mental-health supports to staff including company-paid online cognitive behavioural therapy, video-based mental-health and family therapy, mental-health practitioner coverage and virtual health care.

Read: Mental health and substance abuse issues on the rise: survey

While employees don’t have to divulge substance use struggles to their employer, Walcott said leaders and managers aim to ensure staff know they can get help through company-provided benefits and programs.

“One of our priorities is being sure that information about resources and our offerings are available and widely shared with employees, so that they are aware of what is available.”

Ensuring employees know it’s OK to not be OK, as well as pointing to a range of mental-health and substance use programs and supports will be key now and in the post-pandemic years to come, says Blake.

He suggests employers point employees who’d like to, for example, cut down the amount of beer they’re drinking while watching hockey games to BounceBack, a free online program managed by the CMHA that can help people manage low mood, mild to moderate depression and anxiety, stress or worry. However, he cautions the program isn’t appropriate for the treatment of physical dependencies on substances.

Read: Mental health declining for 23% of employees since start of pandemic: survey

Blake also highlights that it’s key for employers to ensure they offer robust benefits, policies and programs to address the interconnected mental-health and substance use issues some employees may face in the post-pandemic years ahead.

“Substance use is not a discreet concern from mental health — the two are tied together.”

Melissa Dunne is the former managing editor of Benefits Canada.