Addressing opioid use and abuse in the workplace

Opioid abuse is a widespread and serious issue.

Opioid abuse is a widespread and serious issue.

Opioid painkillers play a significant and legitimate role in modern medicine, helping patients deal with substantial pain that could have serious, negative consequences for their short- and long-term health. However, there are major addiction and abuse issues that arise with these powerful drugs, to the point where the White House declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency in October.

For employers, issues with opioid abuse in their workforces require plenty of consideration and a strong understanding of steps to address and curb the problem.

Practical and compassionate considerations

“Only 19% of businesses believe they’re ready to address workplace opioid abuse.”

There are two major areas where opioid abuse has an impact on business operations: Productivity and workplace safety and the damage that these drugs can cause to individual employees and their families. Both can easily lead to bad results for companies, such as employees being unable to safely perform their duties or failing to meet production quotas.

According to a survey from the National Safety Council, about 70 percent of 501 respondents in HR said their respective companies felt negative effects of opioid abuse. They included issues such as absent employees, safety incidents and accidents, and reduced productivity and output. However, just 19 percent of survey respondents said their organizations were in a position to effectively address opioid use.

What can employers do to help?

Drug abuse is an especially serious issue for businesses. It’s also complicated by local and federal laws, as well as medical confidentiality requirements. That means responses have to be similarly deliberate and nuanced.

In terms of specific steps to address opioid abuse, Crain’s Detroit Business suggested finding local resources and organizations, like a state or county mental health authority, that has the ability to help staff deal with addiction issues. Not every worker who uses opioids develops a substance abuse issue. This is especially true in cases where they carefully follow short-term treatment plans designed by medical professionals. However, knowing where to refer employees who have such problems is vital. Although it’s a larger financial commitment, businesses can also consider partially or wholly sponsoring treatment at rehab centers.

The Travelers Companies recommended an active post-injury management strategy that follows appropriate medical regulations, but also takes steps to avoid employees falling into situations where the possibility of opioid abuse increases. Quick response to injuries and a proactive approach to medical case management can both help workers recover quickly and let other employees know their workplace cares for them.

Safety + Health recommended a drug-testing program that focuses on compliance with relevant laws and labor agreements, as well as emphasizes on confidentiality, clear procedures and consequences. Additionally, instructing employees to inform supervisors if they use a prescription drug that affects performance and workplace safety – while avoiding discussion of why the medication is used, to align with privacy needs – can also improve outcomes.

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