Marin Nelson felt like she was going to vomit.
In late 2020, working as a regional VP for the enterprise sales team at Salesforce, she sent a company-wide message to 50,000 of her colleagues, identifying herself as an alcoholic, sharing her journey to sobriety, and inviting her coworkers to join a new sober-focused employee group called Soberforce.
Within five minutes, a colleague reached out to Nelson and explained that he was six days sober — his second time trying — and looking for support groups. She knew instantly that her personal risk was justified.
“We always said that if we help one person, it would be worth it, and I still get goosebumps when I tell this story, because the reaction was so swift,” says Nelson, now the VP of revenue at Visit.org. “This community is intended to be of service to people who are sober, sober-curious and sober allies, with the intention of destigmatizing addiction in the workplace.”
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The launch of Soberforce came at a tough time for folks struggling with substance use, as the isolation brought on by the pandemic fresh challenges and often, a lack of support. From March through September of 2020, alcohol sales spiked 20% compared to the year prior, according to a Columbia University study. Overdoses saw an 18% increase in the early months of the pandemic as compared to 2019, according to reporting system ODMAP. And by June 2020, the CDC reported that 13% of Americans had started or increased substance use as a way to cope with the stress of the pandemic.
Despite those troubling statistics, COVID-19 pushed substance-use disorders to the forefront of conversationsparticularly as they relate to work and workplace culture. That’s a step in the right direction, says Cheryl Brown MerriwetherVP and executive director of ICARE, the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education, which provides everything from clinical care and coaching to training programs and risk assessment tools to support and manage addiction recovery in the workplace.
“If there is a silver lining in terms of the pandemic, it’s that it has raised the level of awareness for these issues,” Merriwether says. “For years I felt like the watchman on the wall, saying, ‘This is a problem!’ But now people are saying, ‘Yes, we have a problem, and what can we do about it?’”
Grassroots efforts like Soberforce can be a vital step toward breaking down the stigma around substance use disorders and sobriety. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff famously banned alcohol from in-office events back in 2016, but the stigma around substance use struggles is a hard one to shake, Nelson says.
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“No matter how supportive a workplace culture is, it’s a very vulnerable thing to say, ‘I’m struggling,’” she says. “That’s where I feel like this representation really matters, putting faces to what a sober alcoholic looks like, what an ally looks like, and how they show up and how they recognize if someone needs help.”
After years as a Salesforce employee, for example, Nelson didn’t know any other sober colleagues — until one bravely posted his own story on LinkedIn in the early days of the pandemic. It led to a small foursome of sober sales leaders coming together to share their own experiences with each other. As the pandemic lingered, Nelson and her colleagues relished the support they felt by simply speaking to one another over the phone, and started thinking about how they could expand their outreach to the entirety of Salesforce.
“We recognized that people are struggling, and they must also be struggling at Salesforce because they’re struggling everywhere,” she says. “Salesforce has a foundation of all these equality groups and employee resource groups, which gave us a really easy framework to pull from and replicate. It made it super easy for us to say, well, let’s stand up on our own.”
Today, Soberforce has more than 400 members and operates primarily on Slack (which Salesforce acquired in 2021). Its purpose as a resource for employees is to provide a community, and help steer people toward their most successful journey with sobriety.
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“This isn’t a promotion of a specific path to recovery,” Nelson says.”This group is to say, there are many paths, and we want to discuss all of them, as well as all the reasons for being sober — not everyone is super because they’re in recovery.”
Just as LinkedIn and Slack helped Nelson find and support other sober colleagues at Salesforce, Merriwether says technology has been a catalyst to better communication and care for those looking for it. As Zoom and video chats became the de facto way to connect with everyone from coworkers to doctors as a result of the pandemic, professional recovery coaches and Alcoholics Anonymous groups also turned to technology to extend support to those in need.
“The primary focus of the last two years has been increased awareness, and then collaboration between people who provide services,” Merriwether says. “When people are isolated, sometimes the only way to reach them is through a technology device.”
With the darkest days of the pandemic behind us, Merriwether and her team at ICARE are now working on ensuring that workplaces have continued access to the tools and benefit programs that will help them support employees, whether they’re working in the office or remotely from home.
“We’re starting to talk to brokers who support employers, letting them know: these services are available to supplement and complement existing systems of care, which still remain overwhelmed,” she says. “People who are policymakers are now looking for the types of services that would be provided through healthcare programs — EAP programs and services — and they’re trying to project what level of care would be needed.”
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Still, getting folks to embrace support — especially when it’s coming from an employer — remains an uphill battle. Merriwether notes that existing EAP programs to support recovery have just a 3-5% utilization rate.
“One of the main barriers is that people have to access those services through their HR department, and most employees are not comfortable sharing their struggles with their human resource professional,” she says. “We are proposing that the workplace culture expand DEI initiatives and invite people with lived experience with substance use disorder or mental health or behavioral health to participate in inclusion activities under the DEI umbrella. Break the silence and stigma around the topic.”
Nelson can attest to this. Salesforce, she explains, has a notably robust suite of benefits available to its employees, but it takes increased communication and education to help a workforce feel confident and comfortable in accessing them.
“Soberforce partners with the Salesforce benefits team and the employee success team to find ways to elevate and simplify the process someone must navigate when they need help,” she says. “There’s not a company out there that has nailed the process of support, because there are so many places to go. If someone is in a state of high stress, how do we make it easier for them to get help?”
Read more: Making your workplace drug-free and recovery friendly can help support people with addictions
For Merriwether’s part, ICARE provides training sessions and lunch-and-learns to help organizations answer those tough questions. For leadership teams, the value of inviting these speakers and facilitators into a workforce can make a significant impact in both employees access care and signaling that the company is prioritizing creating a supportive culture. ICARE consultants will also work with company leaders to form a long-term plan of action, incorporating input and feedback from employees and employee resource groups.
It all contributes to not just safe workplaces, but workplaces that thrive. Empathetic businesses are important to younger employees, Merriwether notes, and Nelson emphasizes the financial impact these kinds of programs can have on a company’s bottom line.
“The lost productivity of untreated alcoholism is significant, and the employee retention as a result of having a group that says, we see you and honor you and support you — it matters on so many levels,” Nelson says. “Businesses make decisions based on ROI, and the ROI is 100% there. Do you want someone to go through repeated treatments, or do you want to help them return to the workforce and be successful? Companies who don’t figure out how to keep up are going to lose a lot of talent.”