Positive Proactive Steps Employers can Take to Deal with Opioids in the Workplace

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5 September 2023

Positive Proactive Steps Employers can Take to Deal with Opioids in the Workplace

The cost of opioid abuse in the workplace is staggering, not just in dollars and lost productivity, but also in human costs.

Because employers pay for a large portion of worker health care coverage, employers shoulder substantial direct dollar-costs associated with opioid abuse. They also shoulder the substantial costs of absenteeism, lost productivity, and reduced workplace morale. (Learn more in "Prescription Opioids and Safety Sensitive Work".)

The human cost is harder to quantify because it varies from person to person and is filled with intangibles. But there is a familiar spiral as opioid abuse progresses. It can start with disruptions to family routines and stability. Then advance to include risky and abusive behaviors. Followed by a loss of employment and income, not just for the person abusing opioids but potentially for family members also. Which can lead to criminal activity and incarceration. Many opioid abusers pay the ultimate price with an early death due to overdose or suicide.

Despite the familiar problems caused by opioid abuse, the National Safety Council (NSC) found that most employers (71%) agree that prescription drug abuse is a disease and requires treatment. Nearly half (48%) of employers would like to help employees by “returning them to their position after treatment.” (Learn more in "Managing Opioids in the Workplace".)

There are a number of positive, proactive steps employers can take to help their employees recover and return to work.

Strong and Clear Workplace Drug Policies and Procedures

Every workplace needs strong drug policies and procedures to insure the health and safety of all workers. (Learn more in "The Importance of a Good Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Workplace".)

Specifically, employers can:

  • Educate employees about the impact of opioid abuse in the workplace, how opioid abuse can be prevented, and available treatments.
  • Put comprehensive workplace drug policies in place that cover testing, discipline, and treatment for opioid abuse in the workplace.
Free Download: What Your Company's Drug and Alcohol Policy May Be Missing (and How to Get It Right)

Opioid Abuse is a Disease to be Treated

Opioid abuse in the workplace isn’t going to be solved quickly. Employers must remain committed to compassionate treatment of employees who abuse opioids. (Learn more in "A Look At Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics".)

Specifically, employers can:

  • Include a focus on education, prevention, and counseling when addressing opioid abuse in the workplace.
  • Provide training for supervisors and managers so that they have the skills and knowledge to confidently address opioid abuse at work.
  • Provide coverage for rehabilitation treatments.
  • Commit to working towards returning an employee to the job after rehab.

Access to Treatment and Recovery Programs

Less than half of employers (39%) reported to the NSC feeling “very confident” that their health insurance and benefits were structured to deal with the issue of opioid abuse. When a person is in crisis or has decided to enter a treatment, every delay in getting started with rehab is an opportunity for relapse. A quick and smooth enrollment process makes for a good start and builds momentum toward recovery. And the peace of mind that comes from knowing that help is available in the form of an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), MFLA leave, and health care coverage is priceless.

Specifically, employers can:

  • Train employees, especially supervisors and managers, on how to spot and respond to opioid abuse in the workplace.
  • Provide supervisors and managers with knowledgeable HR support when intervening with an employee who is identified as abusing opioids.
  • Offer health insurance and benefits programs that include meaningful coverage for treatment and recovery programs.
  • Inform employees of the support available to treat opioid abuse and ensure that an attitude of offering support rather than judgement is projected to employees by all company officers and management.

Working to Return Employees to the Workplace after Treatment

Returning to work provides the employee with an important milestone in recovery. Work supports recovery by providing structure, a daily routine, an opportunity to do something productive, self-esteem, socialization, and yes, an income. As with returning to work from any injury or illness, there is a need for transition. A well-defined process will help smooth that transition and support a successful return to work.

Specifically, employers can:

  • Work with the employee to secure a smooth transition back to work.
  • Put a Return to Work Agreement (RTWA) in place that spells out the performance expectations and consequences for the employee.
  • Make sure the employee and their supervisors have a common understanding any requirements and limitations under the RTWA, ADA and FMLA that apply.
  • Respect employee confidentiality and make sure that everyone in the workplace respects it also.
  • Make reasonable accommodations for the employee to support continued recovery, for example adjusting work hours so that the employee can attend recovery support meetings.

Finally, employers can stay informed about the opioid crisis and commit to keeping their workplace drug policies, testing procedures, and treatment coverage current with these developments.