Opioid Addiction in the Workplace: How to Help Employees

Opioid addiction is on the rise and is affecting the workplace. The National Safety Council reported that nearly 70 percent of the employers they surveyed said prescription drug abuse has negatively impacted their companies.

Businesses affected run the gamut. A national survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that the top five business categories most affected by substance abuse are accommodations and food service; arts, entertainment and recreation; management; information services; and construction.

Despite the prevalence of abuse in the workplace, the opioid problem is still new enough that many companies are struggling to find ways to deal with the situation. Only 19 percent of human resource personnel surveyed by the National Safety Council said they feel prepared to deal with the problem.

The Culprit

An opioid is a synthetic narcotic derived from compounds in opium. The drug blocks pain and was originally given to cancer patients. In the 1980s, doctors started prescribing opioids to deal with other types of chronic pain — so much that retail sales of opioids in the U.S. quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, according to studies.

Generally, it’s safe to use an opioid pain reliever prescribed by a doctor and taken for a short time as directed. Opioids often are abused, though, because they can produce euphoria while relieving pain. When that happens, it can cause absenteeism, a lack of productivity and more frequent incidences of workplace accidents. Opioid abuse also can cause loss of consciousness, brain damage or cardiac arrhythmias. Regular use — even as prescribed by a doctor — can lead to dependence and, when misused, to overdose and death.

Employer’s Role

On the plus side, employers can play a positive role in employees’ treatment and recovery from drug addiction. A study published in 2009 in the journal, Psychiatric Services, found that employer involvement is effective in convincing employees to seek treatment.

Working Partners, which helps employers create a drug-free workplace, says that not only is helping employees overcome drug abuse beneficial for them and their families, but it helps employers:

  • Protect themselves from liability.
  • Receive insurance discounts.
  • Decrease accidents and workers’ compensation claims.
  • Protect other workers.
  • Save up to $2,607 per worker annually based on missed work days and health care costs racked up by employees who are addicted to drugs.
  • Receive a discount in some states on workers’ compensation insurance premiums.

Tips for Employers

A good drug recovery program should be proactive and comprehensive. The National Safety Council recommends that companies include:

  • Legal documents outlining detailed procedures for staff members to follow and implement.
  • Drug-free work environment (employers must conduct random drug testing).
  • Drug safety education and wellness programs to discuss the risks associated with opioid use.
  • Training for supervisors to ensure everyone understands the company’s drug policies and is able to detect signs of addiction.
  • An employee assistance program that offers confidential treatment and advice about an employee’s rights and treatment options.
  • Short-term and long-term disability plans that allow employees to continue collecting an income if they have to enter rehabilitation and must take time off from work.

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