How to help your employees be smart health care consumers

The term “smart health care consumer” has become increasingly popular. Now more than ever, employers are starting to understand the importance of helping their employees make informed health care decisions — but few know how to do it.

“When employees are smart about their health care choices, it has a positive impact on the company health plan, and the employees,” says Bridgette Bock, sales and retention executive at HealthLink. “But most employees won’t get there on their own, that’s where the employer comes in.”

Smart Business spoke with Bock about how to help employees make informed health care decisions.

How can employers help employees become smart health care consumers?

Employers have a unique opportunity to educate their employees on important health care topics. Typically, employers have direct access to employees and can communicate with them in a variety of ways, such as face-to-face meetings, email, a company intranet site or message boards. Plus, employees tend to more actively engage with information that comes from their employer rather than a third party, such as an insurance carrier.

The most important thing employers can do is use this opportunity to educate their employees. Sharing information about benefits, the best way to use those benefits, as well as a variety of health and wellness topics can help employees become smart health care consumers.

What should employees be educated about?

A great place for employers to focus their efforts is on the company health plan. Employers should consider educating employees on common health care terms, such as deductible, co-payment and co-insurance. They should also educate employees on the specifics of the health plan(s), including a detailed benefit and cost analysis to help them decide which plan is best for them. Providing a side-by-side plan comparison that highlights the important components, if applicable, can really help employees make educated decisions.

Employees also need to be educated about the best way to use their plan. This includes knowing the importance of staying in-network, how to find an in-network doctor and where to go for emergency care. Employers should talk to their insurance carrier or network partner about the materials available to educate their employees on these topics.

What about after an employee picks their plan? Should the education continue?

After employees select their health plan, employers should switch their focus to sharing information about how to use the plan effectively. Some topics to consider include where to go for care, the importance of shopping around before selecting medical services, and available tools like a provider finder, corporate discounts or telemedicine. These can help employees make informed decisions about using their benefits.

When is the best time to provide education?

It’s always a good time to educate employees. Don’t make the mistake of stopping education after open enrollment. Instead, employers should consider developing a yearly calendar with educational topics. Monthly or even bi-weekly communications is a great schedule for educating employees and reminding them about free tools and extras. It is also important to encourage employees to ask questions, so frequently asked questions or question-and-answer sessions are good topics to consider.

Again, employers should check with their carrier or network partner to see what resources are available, as many offer pre-developed educational materials and timelines. This can help employers cut down on the time and resources needed to educate their employees throughout the year.

What else can an employer do to help?

In addition to education, employers can incentivize employees to become healthier with company-wide programs such as a ‘know your numbers’ program or offering flu shots. These preventive programs can help employees avoid chronic disease and the need for additional care. Employers can also consider making the workplace healthier through initiatives like refreshing vending machines with better-for-you options or organizing healthy potlucks or fresh fruit and vegetable deliveries.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by HealthLink

How to support employees with alcohol challenges

Though sometimes hard to detect, alcohol abuse and alcoholism can impact the workplace — from absenteeism and lost productivity to missed deadlines, strained relations with co-workers and outright dismissals from work.

It is important for employers to have policies and plans in place, including support for employees who struggle with these challenges, says James Kinville, senior director of LifeSolutions, an employee assistance program (EAP) and part of UPMC WorkPartners’ suite of services.

Smart Business spoke with Kinville about what employers can do to help employees who show signs of alcohol problems.

What can employers do about this problem?

Employers have an obligation to support their employees, but should not base that solely on lost productivity or the company’s bottom line. Rather, employers have a moral obligation to help their employees live healthier, happier, more sober lives. The same goes for employees dealing with family, financial, legal or health problems.

The best way to address these issues is through an EAP. This benefit offering, which is often separate from health insurance, helps employees with personal or work-related problems that impact their job performance. EAPs typically offer short-term counseling, referrals, employer/employee training and education.

How specifically can an EAP help employees with alcohol problems?

Most EAPs offer awareness training so managers can recognize the signs of a problem and know what to do about it. Once a policy is in place, a manager knows that he or she can refer an employee to the program. That’s incredibly helpful and gives a manager peace of mind.

It’s not a supervisor’s job to diagnose alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Even if a manager suspects that alcohol is involved, it’s better to focus on how the suspected alcohol problem is manifesting itself through increased absences, frequent tardiness or a dramatic falloff in work quality. Stick to tangible behaviors, not the alcohol part.

Accusing the employee of having an alcohol problem rarely goes well and it can be very stressful. It’s better to say you have noticed certain ongoing problems, provide the employee with the EAP number and insist that he or she make contact right away.

What about confidentiality? Are some people hesitant to seek help because it could hurt their career if the word gets out?

Whether the employee seeks help on his or her own volition or is referred by a manager, EAPs are extremely confidential. The EAP only divulges to the employer that the employee made contact with the EAP and that there’s a plan in place. No other health or confidential information is shared.

What is the process once the employee makes contact with an EAP?

Most EAPs offer six sessions with a counselor who conducts a comprehensive review and assessment and works with the employee to develop a plan of action. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed. Other times, the counselor may refer the employee to a therapist or other behavioral health professional covered under the health plan.

What would you tell employers that don’t have an EAP?

Partner with one. EAPs tend to be low cost and even small companies can afford them. It’s a high-value service that employers tend to not need often, but when they do, it makes all the difference.

It’s also important to promote the EAP. Employees need to know about the service and that their organization supports it. EAPs work best when they are promoted internally in a consistent, customized manner, through mailers, lunch and learns, promotional campaigns and worksite presentations.

Any final thoughts on helping employees with alcohol challenges?

You often hear with alcohol or drug addiction that the person with the disease — and these are diseases, not moral weaknesses — has to hit bottom before realizing he or she has to take steps to get better. By utilizing EAPs and other support services, we can raise that bottom so the afflicted person doesn’t have to fall as far. With an EAP, the employee can take action sooner, before a potential crisis hits.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan

It’s never too early to start preparing for the next health plan year

In today’s ever-changing health care market, it’s never been more important for employers to plan early and shop around for their company health insurance.

“Too many employers simply pay their premiums without a full understanding of what they are purchasing, how well it meets the needs of their employees and how much it affects their bottom line,” says Amadou Yattassaye, president of HealthLink.

If your 2018 plan just went into effect, it could be the perfect time to start thinking about next year.

As an employer, your broker, network partner or insurance carrier should be a trusted resource for making benefit decisions and ensuring your plan meets all industry standards and regulations.

“Employers should start the planning process by working directly with these partners to examine the current plan and its performance,” Yattassaye says.

Aspects such as claim history and spending trends should be evaluated. It may also be beneficial to compare the current plan to those of similar companies to determine if the benefits are competitive. From there, employers can consider different solutions to make next year’s plan more effective. Typically, the more informed and involved the employer, the more successful the benefit plan.

Smart Business spoke with Yattassaye about the health insurance planning process.

What are some top products and services that employers implement to make their benefit plan more successful?

  • Medical management — Through a variety of different types of interventions, medical management addresses the use of services and their appropriateness according to medical standards, the quality of members’ experiences, and the cost of the medical care.
    It’s not only about saving money; it also helps employees avoid being exposed to unnecessary services.
  • Telemedicine — Telemedicine programs offer live, on-demand doctor visits via a phone or video call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
    When an employee consults with the telemedicine program, there can be significant cost savings for the employer as well as the employee. And, telemedicine programs have been found to help reduce the amount of emergency room and urgent care visits.
  • Behavioral health and employee assistance program (EAP) — Employees who don’t receive the appropriate help for mental health, substance abuse issues or challenges in their personal life are likely to experience higher medical claims, poor productivity and increased absenteeism. Expanded behavioral health and EAP services can help employees with the individualized support they need, leading to increased risk management and productivity for employers.
  • Health and wellness programs — There are a variety of health and wellness programs that can be implemented to help employees manage their health.

Disease management, 24-hour nurse line, maternity management or corporate discount programs are all great options to help employees take charge of their health, while also managing costs.

Is there anything else employers should know about planning for the next plan year?

No matter what changes you decide to make for the next plan year, it is important for employers to stay informed and engaged with their employee benefit offering.

It’s not only one of the largest expenses of running a company, it also has the potential to make the biggest impact on what’s most important to your business — your employees.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by HealthLink

The importance of educating employees about their health plan

It’s never been more important for employees to have a complete understanding of their health care benefits so they can get the most from their coverage.

For many employees, benefit information can be confusing and even overwhelming to understand. However, employers may have a unique opportunity to educate their employees about their health plan.

“The more familiar employees are with their benefits, the easier it will be for them to make informed health care decisions and use those benefits when they need them.” says Judy Dawson, sales and retention executive at HealthLink Inc. “Educated employees may also be more likely to use their benefits to proactively take charge of their health.”

When it comes to educating employees, knowing where to start can be half the battle.

Smart Business spoke with Dawson about five important topics to educate employees on so they can get the most from their health plan.

1) Benefit and plan summaries

Once an employee is enrolled in a health plan, he or she should review the summary of benefits and coverage and summary plan description documents, which are also referred to as SBC and SPD. These documents should be stored where employees can easily access them, such as on a company intranet or with the human resources department, and employers should educate employees about where to find them.

2) Member ID card

Employees’ member ID cards have a lot of important information that can be useful to them as they navigate the health care system and use their benefits. Health plan and network names, group and/or member numbers, and many important phone numbers are listed on ID cards.

Employers may want to consider creating an informational flyer that shows an example of an ID card with the important information highlighted. Employees should be educated on the importance of carrying their ID card with them at all times and how to request a new card if needed.

3) How to find in-network doctors

One of the most beneficial things to educate employees on is how to find doctors, hospitals and other health care facilities that participate in their health plan’s network. Benefits are always richer when receiving services from an in-network provider, which could save money for employees and the plan.

Employees should know that they risk paying more out-of-pocket or their services not being covered when they go outside of their network. No matter how they search — through an online provider finder tool, a provider directory or by calling customer service — all employees should know exactly how to find doctors who participate in their network.

4) Included products and services

If a health plan includes programs that can help employees better manage their health, such as case management, disease management or telemedicine, they need to be educated. Engagement is truly the key to success with health and wellness and cost containment programs, so it’s in the employer’s best interest to encourage participation.

The same is true for pharmacy, which is one of the most used benefits. Employees should be familiar with their pharmacy benefit manager and any prescription guidelines or restrictions so they can make the best use of these benefits.

5) Additional tools and extras

Most employees are surprised to learn about the amount of discounts and free extras that are available through their plan.

If there is a member portal or website available, that can often be an extremely useful tool to help employees maximize their benefits. Employers can also educate their employees about any discounts available on items they purchase, such as glasses and contacts or healthy eating and living products. Some health plans may even offer premium reductions for wellbeing assessments or preventive screenings.

For more tips on educating your employees about their benefits, contact your broker or network partner.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by HealthLink

Simple, visible moves help in achieving a culture of wellness

Small changes, big results — that’s not always how things work, especially when it comes to health and wellness. But, in terms of the workplace, small changes can often do the most to encourage a culture of wellness.

“You can make a big difference in the lives of employees simply by making the work environment more conducive to wellness,” says Dr. Michael Parkinson, senior medical director of UPMC Health Plan and UPMC WorkPartners. “It doesn’t take major, costly changes to have an impact. Small, simple, but visible moves can communicate that employers are serious about improving the health, safety and well-being of their most precious asset — their employees.”

Smart Business spoke with Parkinson about small changes that can impact wellness.

What are some ways employers can impact employee wellness at the workplace?

One place to start is to encourage employees to walk away from their desks. Cubicles are a mainstay of many workplaces and employees spend much of their time in front of computers. If ‘sitting is the new smoking’ — yes, sedentary lifestyle is a major contributor to death and disease in the U.S. — then getting employees up and moving more needs to be built into each workday.

Leading companies schedule ‘recesses’ throughout the workday, emphasizing stretching, walking meetings and brief walks. Opening an attractive break room or workplace cafeteria encourages employees to not eat at their desks and move at lunchtime.

In early studies, standing workstations have been shown to decrease musculoskeletal strain, improve concentration and increase energy expenditure. Consider introducing one swing activity workstation per group of employees, if the expense for a total office reconfiguration is unaffordable.

Can employers actually increase their employees’ physical activity?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that people who get adequate amounts of physical activity have reduced rates of chronic disease, are better able to maintain a healthy weight, can better manage stress and perform better at work.

Employers can help increase physical activity by taking small measures, which make more activity the expectation and default option. For instance, unlocking the stairwells, making them attractive and encouraging all executives and managers to ‘take a hike’ multiple times throughout the day creates an activity culture.

Employers can support employees who bike to work with safe and secure places on-site for bike storage. They can promote active means of transportation, such as mass transit, by providing transit passes. They can encourage running, walking, biking or taking a fitness class during the day with flextime schedules. Even a single wastebasket in a central work area encourages employees to walk in order to dispose of trash.

How can employers promote healthy eating?

Workplace cafeterias are an ideal place to preferentially price and promote fruits, vegetables, whole grains, non-processed foods and sugar-free drinks. Vending machines can offer healthy alternatives to snack food. Sponsoring ‘new fruit and vegetable of the month’ giveaways can expose employees to foods rarely eaten, but loaded with vitamins, disease-fighting antioxidants and micronutrients.

What about stress, mindfulness and well-being?

All employers see direct and indirect costs of anxiety, stress, depression and lack of mental focus in their medical, disability, workers’ compensation and total productivity costs.

Can the office space or workflow be made less stressful? Are there unnecessary noises, interruptions or poor lighting that exacerbates an already challenging work environment? Are there quiet spaces or rooms for taking a break or practicing mindfulness (deep breathing with mental visualization) to relieve stress and re-charge?

Can employers work to decrease tobacco consumption?

The CDC estimates that smokers cost employers about $5,800 more than their nonsmoking co-workers. A smoke-free policy for the workplace and worksite property should be considered. Employers can make tobacco-cessation classes and services available, as well as materials that promote the benefits of living smoke-free.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan

Choosing the right health coaching program for your employees

It’s a fact that 75 percent of employer health care costs are the result of chronic diseases that have unhealthy behaviors as their root cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The key to bringing down those health care costs? Change the behaviors that lead to the chronic diseases,” says Amanda Budzowski, MS, MPH, CHES, senior manager of Clinical Training & Development at UPMC WorkPartners and UPMC Health Plan.

“The question is, how? How to get employees to lose weight, eat better, get more active or stop smoking?” she says. “How to help them better manage their diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease?”

And the answer is: With help from a health coach.

“It turns out that many health insurance companies are now offering health coaching free to their members. That’s great news for employers,” Budzowski says.

Smart Business spoke with Budzowski about how to set up a coaching program to help change the employee behaviors that lead to chronic diseases.

What’s important to include in a successful health coaching program?

With health coaching, employees and family members can work one-on-one, usually by phone or email, with a trained expert in behavior change. Research confirms that health coaching works.

When assessing a health plan’s health coaching services, look for:

  • Lifestyle expertise: The health coaching team should be able to help your employees with lifestyle challenges, such as losing weight, eating healthier, quitting smoking, increasing activity and lowering stress.
  • Health condition expertise: Health coaches should also have expertise in managing conditions such as diabetes, asthma, low back pain, depression and heart disease.
  • Comprehensive staffing: To ensure your employees are in good hands, the health coaching team should have licensed nurses, counselors, social workers, registered dietitians and exercise physiologists — preferably with medical director oversight.
  • Accessibility: Some health insurance companies can actually supply health coaches to your job site. Short of that, look for health coaches to be available full-time on weekdays via phone, email or live chat, with accessibility for teletype devices for the deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired.

What else should employers keep in mind?

Effective health coaching doesn’t happen by accident. It should follow a process much like this:

1) Health coach meets with client to define their personal wellness vision.

2) Health coach and client explore strengths and past successes as well as anticipated challenges and barriers.

3) Health coach and client determine health goals.

4) Health coach and client co-create solutions and a customized plan to get there.

5) Health coach checks in frequently to help client stay motivated and accountable.

6) Health coach celebrates with client when goal is accomplished.

Health coaching is a highly effective tool for changing the behaviors that lead to the chronic diseases that significantly increase employer health care costs. That’s why it’s so important to choose the right health coaching program for your employees.

Are there any secrets to getting employees to use a health coach?

There is a new strategy out there that is having a big impact on health coach usage, and that’s when a person’s doctor recommends health coaching. It’s one thing if a person self-directs to a health coach or if a health insurance company recommends the health coach, but it’s a different deal altogether if the recommendation comes from the doctor.

People believe their doctors and doctors get to know their patients over time. So there’s a relationship of trust that forms. Therefore, when a doctor says to a patient that it would helpful if he or she got some guidance and motivation from a health coach, that recommendation goes a long way. The patient is more likely to take action and sign on.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan

How technology connects doctors with patients and saves money

In today’s age of on-the-go technology, consumers expect to be able to get the information or services they need quickly — often with just a click of a button. For many consumers, this includes how they receive medical services.

“As technology evolves, the way we communicate is evolving as well,” says Susan Lehne, acting manager at HealthLink. “This is true for how patients communicate with their doctors, which also could represent a cost-savings to an employer’s health plan.”

Smart Business spoke with Lehne about technology advancements in health care and what that means for employers and their health plans.

How has technology changed the way people communicate with their doctors?

Technology has drastically affected the way we communicate over the past decade. From email, text messaging, instant messaging and video chatting, we now have quicker, more on-demand options for how we communicate with each other.

With these advancements, there has also been a change in people’s expectations. For example, if someone’s preferred method of communication is email, they expect their doctor’s office to be able to communicate with them in that same manner.

As technology evolves, more people are questioning the status quo. Like any other good or service they purchase, they expect to have options when it comes to where and how they receive medical services. Why should someone have to leave their home or their office to talk to a doctor for a minor cold? People expect everyday activities, like going to the doctor, to become quicker, easier and more efficient because of technology.

What kind of programs capitalize on technological advancements?

Programs such as telemedicine, video chat and 24-hour nurse lines all capitalize on the latest technology. They are designed to make it quicker and easier for people to have their health care needs met via non-traditional methods.

Patients can now receive professional, effective and convenient care through access to nurses and on-demand consultations with U.S. board-certified doctors available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without driving to the doctor’s office. These programs treat a variety of common ailments such as cold and flu, sinus infections and bronchitis, and in some cases, can even prescribe medicine.

Technology-based programs will never entirely replace face-to-face appointments for patients who prefer that experience, or in emergencies, but they can be a great option to get the care you need without leaving your home or work.

How can these programs help save employers money?

Technology-based consults cost less than a normal office visit, retail health or urgent care visit, and they can save hundreds of dollars over a trip to the emergency room (ER).

Often, these programs can be set up on a per use basis, meaning if an employee doesn’t use the benefit, the employer doesn’t pay for it. There may also be an option to include a co-pay, which means the employee covers some of the costs of the visit.

These programs can play a big role in avoiding unnecessary utilization and ER visits by helping employees decide where to go for care.

Are these products hard to implement?

Not at all. Implementing these programs usually only involves a little employee education.

Employers should check with their third party administrator or network partner about the tools and resources available for implementation. There is an array of marketing materials that can be used to educate employees and ensure the program is a success.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by HealthLink

Employee health and organizational health are intertwined

All organizations want to create a workplace where its employees are healthy, productive and strong performers, says Stephen T. Doyle, senior director of Strategic Health Management Solutions at WorkPartners, an affiliate of UPMC Health Plan.

But what does it take for employees to meet these goals?

Smart Business spoke with Doyle about UPMC’s Health and Productivity Performance Index (HaPPI), which can help employers understand what environmental and cultural factors within the workplace support employee health and well-being, and organizational success.

What is HaPPI? How does it work?

HaPPI gives companies a sense of all the facets that contribute to the culture of health within their organization. UPMC developed HaPPI as an industry best practice measurement instrument, drawing from several validated industry assessments as well as from internal UPMC and external industry experts.

HaPPI assesses three domains: culture and environment; programs and health; and roles, responsibility and rewards. Clients receive an aggregate score as well as an analysis of their company’s strengths and weaknesses in each category. This final report compares the company’s performance to companies of similar size and industry. It also includes specific recommendations and an action plan for improvement.

Why do those three domains help determine employee health and productivity?

Culture and environment — The physical environment of the workplace greatly influences employee behavior. This category measures everything from offering healthy options in the company cafeteria and vending machines to the evaluation of the ergonomics of employee workstations. When evaluating culture, you must also include informal practices that influence behavior. For example, do morale-building activities often involve high-calorie treats? These habits and practices can unintentionally encourage unhealthy behaviors.

Programs and health — Take an assessment of the nutrition, physical activity, stress management, tobacco cessation, weight management, disease management and behavioral health programs available to employees. Also, consider how many employees participate and whether there are metrics to evaluate the health outcomes and success of these programs.

Roles, responsibilities and rewards — This category looks at an organization’s policies on everything from health benefits to disability leave to how employees are compensated for their performance. For example, giving employees paid time off, or PTO, as opposed to a bank of sick days encourages them to take care of themselves to avoid illness so they enjoy their days off. When employees know that they will only get paid at 60 percent of their salary when they go on disability (as opposed to 100 percent) they’re more likely to take steps to limit their time away from work.

The structure of medical benefits also influences employee behavior. When workers pay a portion of their medical care and gain a greater understanding of health care costs, they tend to become more motivated to stay healthy and avoid unnecessary medical services.

Other factors — Tuition reimbursement, opportunities to increase skills and being eligible for bonuses tied to performance also play a role in creating a healthy workforce. When employees feel that their employer is invested in them and that their performance makes a difference, they are likely to be healthier and more productive.

The bottom line? The health of your employees and your organization are intertwined. Becoming aware of key features that influence the health of your organization is the first step to creating a workplace that will continue to thrive in the ever-evolving marketplace.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan

Follow these tips for your next open enrollment

Open enrollment is a period each year when employees can sign up for their company-sponsored health plan, and as the insurance industry has changed, open enrollment has, too.

“The importance of open enrollment and the enrollment process have changed significantly over the years,” says Carla M. Flamm, sales and retention executive at HealthLink, Inc. “With all the new laws, extensions and even the increased use of electronic filing tools, open enrollment can be quite complicated for the average employer.”

For some employers, this complication is too much to add to their ever-growing list of to-dos, so they opt for the bare minimum open enrollment process. However, by not taking advantage of the unique educational opportunities open enrollment can offer, employers may be missing a chance to help save money for the plan and for their employees.

Smart Business spoke with Flamm about five tips to help employers with open enrollment.

1) Start early

The most prepared employers start planning for open enrollment four to five months before it starts. Employers should start by working with their broker, third party administrator (TPA) and network partner to examine the current plan and its performance. From there, employers can consider changes to make next year’s plan more effective.

Employers should also start planning for the actual enrollment process. They need to make some big decisions early on, such as whether or not they will require each employee to go through the enrollment process so they can collect updated information, or if only employees with changes need to re-enroll.

2) Collaborate with your partners

Employers should work collaboratively with their broker, TPA and network partner to plan for open enrollment early. Together, they should evaluate claim history and spending trends to determine if benefit changes are necessary. They should also compare the current plan offering to similar companies to determine how competitive the benefits are. These partners should be an employer’s trusted go-to resource for ensuring the health plan offering and open enrollment process meets all industry standards and regulations.

3) Educate employees

After making initial benefit decisions, employers should be diligent about educating their employees of their options, any changes that may affect them and how to make good purchasing decisions. Employers should consider giving employees educational materials that focus on selecting a plan that is right for them by encouraging them to evaluate components such as deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums, instead of focusing solely on premiums.

4) Be proactive with information

Employers should send benefit and educational materials to employees no later than two to three weeks prior to open enrollment. Employees need time to be familiar with this information so that they’re prepared to ask questions and make their selections during the open enrollment period. Don’t wait for employees to ask for these pieces, get them out as soon as possible. Proactive education means HR departments can spend more time enrolling employees in their plan and less time answering questions.

5) Consider a health fair

Hosting a health fair is the best way to optimize the open enrollment period and ensure success. Employees can get the information they need to make the best choice for them, and employers can take advantage of the face-to-face time to complete health and wellness screenings and enroll employees onsite, eliminating confusion and saving time. Employers that offer these fairs should be sure that every component of the health plan, including medical, dental, life and disability, etc., are present at the event so employees have a complete understanding. These events should be easy and convenient for employees to attend, with a potential incentive for attending.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by HealthLink

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