What employers need to know as opioid problems hit the workplace

The opioid epidemic has reached every corner of society, including the workplace. This epidemic involves the use of prescription opioid (pain) medications, illicit drugs like heroin or fentanyl, or mixing opioid drugs.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, opioid problems cost employers around $10 billion annually from absenteeism. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of those with opioid problems ask for help or receive it.

In recognition of National Recovery Month, Smart Business spoke with Dennis C. Daley, Ph.D., senior clinical director at UPMC Health Plan, who has more than 30 years of experience in clinical care and addiction research, about what employers need to know about this growing issue.

How prevalent is opioid misuse or addiction in the workplace? What can employers do for someone struggling with addiction?

Opioid misuse and addiction has reached all levels of the workplace — it doesn’t distinguish between gender, race, geographic location or income bracket. About 5 percent or more of the population has misused opioids in the past month and over 2 million have an opioid use disorder. Opioid misuse can involve not taking medications as prescribed, taking too much, mixing opioids with other drugs such as sedatives, giving or selling opioid pills to family or friends, or using another person’s prescribed opioids. Many people with an opioid addiction have other substance and mental health problems, which makes recovery more challenging.

Employers can support employees who may have an opioid problem or are affected by a family member’s issue, but it isn’t a supervisor’s job to diagnose the problem. If managers witness increased absences, decreased work output or out-of-the-ordinary behavior, they should focus on tangible behaviors and let the employee know these issues are causing concern.

How can employers address the issue?

The best-case scenario is an employee assistance program (EAP). Companies of all sizes can contract with an EAP, which is sometimes separate and sometimes a component of health insurance. EAPs often have clinicians and therapists on staff. They offer assistance in assessing problems, providing counseling, referrals, and training and education. If a manager suspects a problem, he or she can either contact the EAP directly or strongly suggest the employee seek help with an EAP.

It also can be difficult to maintain focus at work if you’re worried about a family member using drugs. Having a loved one suffer with an opioid or other substance problem affects millions of workers.

How else can an EAP help with opioid or other drug problems?

EAP experts will provide specific policies and procedures that can be shared at all levels of the organization. That way, employees know where to go for help if they are concerned about their own drug use or a family member’s substance use. EAPs are confidential. The EAP only divulges to the employer that the employee made contact and that there is a plan in place.

What do you tell employers without an EAP?

Work with your HR director and investigate an EAP. It is easy and inexpensive to partner with one and it takes a huge burden off of your managers and HR staff. There are also local treatment agencies, free or low-cost clinics, private therapists, websites such as www.pa.gov, and community support groups like Narcotic Anonymous or Nar-Anon for families. At a minimum, employers should list these resources on the company website, bulletin boards or in the lunchroom.

What else should we know about opioid abuse and the workplace?

Although alcohol problems are more prevalent, opioid problems have substantially increased in the past several years. Prescription opioid use is declining, but more young people are transferring their addiction to illicit street drugs like heroin.

Employees struggling with opioid or other substance problems are not weak or morally corrupt, but they often need help accepting they have a problem or getting involved in treatment or recovery. Employers have an important role to play — they can help recognize the signs of a problem and then get treatment moving in the right direction.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan