HR Management & Compliance

The Opioid Crisis and the Workplace

The National Safety Council (NSC) has begun its nationwide road tour through areas of the United States that have been heavily hit by the opioid crisis. As part of that campaign, they have taken ownership of the Celebrating Lost Loved Ones map. Since the opioid crisis has taken its toll on businesses as well, from lost productivity to abuse at work, the situation requires attention. Today we are joined by Kelly Nantel, the Vice President of Communications and Advocacy at the NSC. She will be answering some questions about the opioid addiction.

HR Daily Advisor: According to your research, 37,814 people died from opioid use in 2016. That is a staggering number. I know that the 2017 numbers are not yet available, but my understanding is that number will rise sharply. Can you help us understand what is happening with the current crisis?

Kelly Nantel: Over the past 2 decades, opioid prescribing has increased to stunning levels. Highly addictive opioid medications—such as Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin—have been improperly marketed as the most effective method for treating pain. As such, since the 1990s, opioids have been liberally prescribed, leading to a surge of people suffering from opioid use disorder (the medical name for opioid addiction), overdose, and death. In fact, opioid painkillers are very dangerous, and the decision to use them should come with great care.

(Please note that 37,814 is the total number of unintentional opioid-related overdoses.)

HR Daily Advisor: What makes opioids so dangerous?

Kelly Nantel: Research shows that people who take opioid painkillers can rapidly develop an addiction. Opioid use disorder is a chronic disease, not a lack of willpower or moral failing. The human brain wasn’t meant to process opioids. Opioids permanently change nerve cells in the brain, so simply taking away the drug doesn’t change the brain’s requirement for it. In addition, prescription opioid misuse can lead users to illicit or illegal drugs, such as heroin or fentanyl.

HR Daily Advisor: I believe that many have preconceived notions about what an opioid addict looks like. Can you help characterize what opioid addiction really looks like?

Kelly Nantel: Opioid addiction is a not just a back alley, dark corner problem. Bathrooms across suburbia are often the backdrop for drug misuse. People of every race and economic status—and from every geographic area—have developed opioid addictions. Many people with an opioid use disorder began taking prescription opioids after an injury or surgery and then became reliant on the drug after only a few days of use. When they can no longer get, or afford, a legitimate prescription for opioid pills, many have moved on to heroin.

HR Daily Advisor: How can the stigma associated with opioid addiction be addressed?

Kelly Nantel: We have to stop thinking of addiction as a moral failing and remember that it is a chronic brain disorder. Some resistance exists to public and private funding of opioid use disorder treatment. This is due to the misconception that those who misuse opioids are doing so for pleasure. Too often, those who suffer from an opioid use disorder are treated as though they lack self-control, leading to policies that set unreasonable requirements to obtain treatment—or limit the duration or recurrence of treatment. In fact, an opioid use disorder, like other substance use disorders, is a chronic brain disease. There is no cure for a chronic disease, but it can be managed. We can erase the stigma of opioid use disorder through public education and by showing people that evidence-based treatment can help. Education is key, which is why the NSC launched its Stop Everyday Killers campaign last fall. The campaign is a national effort to help educate Americans about the risks of taking opioids and to put a face on the thousands killed from prescription opioid overdose.

HR Daily Advisor: I’ve read that most addicts begin with regular medical treatment. Doesn’t that mean that anyone can become an addict?

Kelly Nantel: Anyone can become addicted to opioids, and some people may be at heightened risk if they have certain markers in their family or personal medical history. Sadly, the majority of opioid addictions are born in doctors’ offices. To reduce risk, the NSC recommends discussing nonaddictive alternatives with a doctor and, if no other treatment is available, asking for a short-term opioid prescription.

Please join us tomorrow when we will discuss how opioids have effected the workplace, and what you should know about the epidemic.