The Opioid Crisis Has Entered the Workforce: What Is an Employer to Do?

Oct 10, 2018
By Sarah Church, Ph.D.

As rates of opioid addiction and substance abuse continue to grow in the United States, the crisis is also beginning to negatively impact employers. A recent New York Times article highlighted startling increases in overdoses in workplaces throughout the country. The National Safety Council reports that 70 percent of companies acknowledge being impacted by employees affected by prescription drug misuse — a development that drives absenteeism, accidents, injuries and other problematic behavior. In 2016, companies reportedly spent $2.6 billion for treatment of opioid abuse, a figure that doesn’t include additional losses due to performance issues and employee turnover. Dr. Sarah Church, the Founder of Wholeview Wellness®, recently shared ways for employers to address the issues they face.

Identifying the Costs of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Despite these significant and growing issues in the workforce, employers have been slow to create programs to address the crisis’ challenging issues. Employers’ sluggish response is likely due to a combination of disbelief, inability to identify drug use because of inadequate testing (e.g., not testing for newer synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and oxycodone), and lack of knowledge and training on how to respond effectively. Despite hard evidence including prescription reports and national data, many employers continue to deny having substance use problems within their own companies, somehow believing that the problem is occurring elsewhere.

Employers can identify if this is an issue in their own company by calculating changing costs. The National Safety Council and national nonprofit Shatterproof worked with NORC at the University of Chicago to create a relevant and user-friendly calculator that determines the cost of substance use in a company. By entering industry (e.g. mining, retail, finance, etc.), location, and the number of employees, the calculator can estimate the costs associated with lost time, turnover, and healthcare.

Many business leaders may be surprised at how expensive it is to disregard this problem and not help people access treatment, since substance misuse by employees is both expensive and unproductive for employers. Providing a clear path to wellness for employees struggling with substance use disorders can be a great investment. Healthcare and other costs can be lowered substantially by developing a culture of openness and wellness while ensuring employees know what their treatment options are from the outset of their employment, which creates an environment where they know they can come forward without fear of retaliation or threat of job loss.

Developing a Culture of Assistance

Because it is difficult to predict which employees might struggle, it is beneficial to implement these programs company-wide so that everyone has access to services when they are needed. This also helps develop a culture that all supervisors and employees share responsibility for keeping each other safe and healthy.

So how does an employer get started? Here are a few good steps to take:

  1. Start by acknowledging that substance misuse can have a serious impact on the workplace.

  2. Inform employees that you have a drug-free workplace policy and program during onboarding and periodically afterward.

  3. Ensure that everyone in the workplace understands that a drug-free workplace is more likely to be a safe, healthy, and productive environment.

  4. Expand drug testing panels to include synthetic opioids including fentanyl and oxycodone.

  5. Train supervisors and employees how to identify the signs and symptoms of substance misuse.

  6. Encourage employees to treat and talk about substance use problems as a medical disorder, not as a justification for termination.

  7. Have a discussion with your health insurance plan to ensure they offer effective alternatives to opioids for the treatment of pain (e.g., non-opioid medications, physical therapy, acupuncture, and psychological treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy), that they use stringent opioid prescribing guidelines, and that they support medication assisted treatment (e.g., methadone, Suboxone, and Vivitrol).

  8. Leverage Employee Assistance Programs and relationships with outside providers, such as treatment providers and healthcare professionals, to help employees return to work.

Although actively addressing substance misuse in the workplace may seem daunting at first, it is a great opportunity for providing both healthcare and other cost savings while also improving the health of employees and their families.

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