The abuse of opioids in the U.S. has become a crisis employers can’t ignore. It carries an economic impact of $78.5 billion each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and these effects spill into the workplace.
“Just about everyone has had some connection to this opioid crisis,” said labor and employment attorney Jim Reidy, who spoke on the topic at the SHRM Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., in March.
“They know of a family, or it might be their family. We all benefit from being more aware and aggressive,” he said in an interview with LivingRight after the conference.
When workers misuse opioids, attendance, performance, and safety issues emerge. However, employers may not be ready to deal with the issue, or know how to prevent it.
Only 19 percent feel extremely prepared to deal with prescription drug misuse in the workplace, said Reidy, who works in the Manchester, New Hampshire, office of Sheehan Phinney.
A proactive approach toward dealing with the issue can involve education of employees about the dangers of opioid abuse. An employee assistance program or a local medical care provider can be a resource, as they can provide employees with a place to turn for help and can also be resource for information about the addictive nature of the drugs.
Employees may also benefit from hearing an emergency medical technician describe what it’s like to try to revive an overdose victim.
“From the stories I’ve heard from those who have had to administer Narcan (a drug used to treat an opioid overdose), it’s terrifying,” Reidy said.
Supervisors should be trained to watch for signs of opioid abuse, such as excessive absenteeism, asking for a pay advance, or withdrawal from social interaction.
They should also be aware of the physical indications that can emerge, such as cold shakes, chills and sweating, or vomiting.
Workers’ compensation issues
In addition, employers need to be aware of how workers’ compensation claims play a role in opioid abuse. A study from the Workers Compensation Research Institute found that 65 to 85 percent of injured workers with pain medications received at least one opioid prescription.
“A lot of employers are starting to reach out to their workers’ compensation carriers and talk about what they’re doing with regard to paying for opioids and are looking at alternatives,” Reidy said.
A company should work with its insurance provider to discuss the use of medication and pain-relieving alternatives for injured and returning workers. Alternative pain management methods may include exercise, meditation, acupuncture, and mindfulness.
“Workers’ compensation carriers are concerned about this, too,” Reidy added. “If a worker is prescribed an opioid and becomes addicted, the worker is not likely to return to work in the same capacity or at all.”
Support for recovery
Employers can offer support by being a recovery-friendly workplace, although many opt to terminate an employee rather than offering a chance at recovery, Reidy said.
Seventy-one percent of employers say that addiction is a disease for which treatment is required, Reidy noted, but 65 percent say they’re likely to fire someone who has a problem with opioids.
In some states, such as Vermont and Minnesota, there are restrictions on firing an employee for a positive drug test. Giving an employee an opportunity to enter a rehabilitation program is not a bad approach, Reidy said.
“If you can steer someone away from addiction, and work with someone in recovery, you may have a more dedicated employee,” Reidy said.
Offering employees the option of completing a recovery program in order to keep their job has social benefits as well, he notes, as an employee who is fired may turn to crime to support the addiction.
“We all benefit from more awareness and being a recovery-friendly workplace,” Reidy said.
This article was featured in the Employee Health & Wellness Training Advisor newsletter.
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