What Can Employers Do to Fight the Opioid Epidemic?

Opioid misuse costs companies in missed work and medical costs. Here’s what they can do to solve the problem.
Opioids in the workplace

Opioid prescriptions have nearly quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the drugs help people manage pain, they are also addictive. Eight to 12 percent of opioid users develop an opioid use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The rise in prescriptions means more addiction, and drug abuse in the workplace means headaches for employers. The cure for that headache, though, is not a Band-Aid approach. Working toward solving the opioid problem in the workplace will require careful consideration in resources and prevention methods from employers.

Prescribing the Problem

In May 2017, the Federal Reserve discovered that employers are finding it difficult to fill open positions, partially due to a skills gap and also because many applicants can’t pass a drug test. When a job involves heavy machinery, having mentally aware workers with fast reflexes is important, but opioids hinder brain function and productivity, resulting in an increase in workplace accidents and workers’ compensation claims.

Most of these claims now involve opioid use, though it varies by state. In a study of 25 states, Workers Compensation Research Institute found that 88 percent of Arkansas’ workers’ compensation claims where a pain medication was prescribed involved opioids. The lowest in the study was in New Jersey, which had 60 percent of claims involving the class of drugs.

This trend is expensive. Crain’s Detroit Business found that opioid abuse costs businesses $16.3 billion in 2013 in disability claims and lowered productivity. Medical costs for opioid abusers are also almost twice that of non-abusers.

Absenteeism is also higher. The average worker misses about 10 days per year, according to Tess Benham, senior program manager of prescription drug overdose initiatives at the National Safety Council, a health and safety-focused nonprofit organization based in Itasca, Illinois. But those abusing pain medication or using heroin miss an average of 29 days of work per year.

RELATED: How Growing Marijuana Legalization Could Affect the Economy

The inability to find new hires who aren’t using drugs is another challenge, and it costs companies about 21 percent of the workers’ wages to find a replacement. When it takes longer to find someone, due to multiple qualified candidates failing the drug screening, for instance, the costs then increase.

A combination of the lowered productivity, higher health care and substance abuse treatment costs, missed work and more add up to an economic burden of $78.5 billion, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

If hoping to avoid hiring opioid-addicted workers in the first place, employers turn to drug testing in pre-employment screening. However, many don’t know what type of panel to test with, according to Dawn Standerwick, vice president of strategic growth at Employment Screening Resources, or ESR, a pre-employment screening and employee background check company based in Novato, California.

“I think employers really need to recognize that there has been a surge in drug use, prescription drug use in particular, and that sometimes the panels that they’re using may or may not include some of those opiates that they would like to pick up,” Standerwick said.

It’s a common assumption that a 10-panel drug test would pick up more drugs than a five-panel one, Standerwick said, but the 10-panel tests for some drugs that are no longer commonly used, such as quaaludes. For firms wanting to test for synthetic opioids instead, Standerwick advised asking for a five-panel test with expanded opiates.

Nevertheless, opioid abuse is likely to persist, so business leaders should take proactive measures. “Even if companies have a zero-tolerance policy, just having the education component as part of their program, educating employees about taking a proactive stance, is helpful,” Standerwick said.

How to Help

Despite this widespread, costly issue, NSC’s survey found that only 24 percent of companies provide training or education to employees on opioid use. “Training was the single most underutilized thing a company could do to address substance abuse in their workforce,” Benham said.

Along with training, business leaders can make other moves toward a workplace that helps its workers overcome and avoid opioid addiction. Here are some suggestions from Julie Stich, associate vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, a nonprofit focused on providing education about employee benefits, based in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

  • Host “lunch and learns” to discuss opioid abuse and mental health issues with employees. “Even the act of talking about them might give the employees who are affected a little more security,” she said, especially when it comes to opening up to Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs.
  • Employers should promote alternative pain management options, such as chiropractic or osteopathic manipulative treatments.
  • Supervisors can receive training to help them recognize the signs of abuse and know how to refer the employee to an EAP or to help them seek medical treatment.
  • The employer can work with their pharmacy benefit manager to ensure there’s a fraud tip hotline, providing a way to report drug misuse or a physician practicing poor prescribing habits.
  • Employers can also have a data analysis of the health care plan to see an aggregate of what drugs employees use and their hospital discharges for prior drug abuse events.

Primary Prevention

While helping those with addiction issues is important, primary prevention is also crucial to getting ahead of this issue. “The idea of giving people access to alternatives for pain or doing things like yoga and working with the pharmacy benefits management, all of that’s a little bit more downstream and already assumes that there’s a risk factor in place,” said Joel Bennett, president and founder of Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems Inc., a Fort Worth, Texas-based consulting and training service focused on well-being in the workplace.

Bennett echoed the importance of EAPs and said that the employer needs to actively promote the service, which can provide professional counseling. The EAPs can also help managers coach employees seeking help.

Additionally, the most successful EAPs have management involvement, Bennett said. If managers use the EAPs themselves and share that, then employees will be more likely to use the service and get professional help.

“Many people have these problems, and the stigma in our culture is so great that people think that they’re all alone,” Bennett said. “We have to take a collective responsibility as employers who have a role to play in their community to say this is an issue that we all need to face.”

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.