HR Management & Compliance

Opioid Crisis: What Is Needed Most from HR?

When it comes to dealing with opioid addiction in the workplace, it’s not always immediately clear what’s needed most from HR: Is it compassion? A dose of tough love? A strategic focus on the hard facts?

However, when you start peeling back the layers of the issue, the answer emerges.

Opioid abuse statistics are unavoidable, but they bear repeating. In 2016, more Americans died from drug overdoses than car crashes, and—as reported in this Economist articleopioid addiction is likely one of the main factors contributing to a decline in overall life expectancy in the United States, a rare trend in developed countries.

Some businesses are struggling to fill positions left vacant due to opioid addiction. In fact, the increase in opioid prescriptions could account for about 20% of the decline in labor force participation for men and 25% for women, according to Princeton economist Alan Krueger.

While people struggling with drug dependencies are more likely to be out of work than those who are not, 75% of people with addiction issues are in the workforce, creating a roster of challenges for organizations of all sizes.

“The misuse and abuse of opioids could negatively impact employee productivity, workplace costs, the availability of labor, absenteeism and disability costs, workers’ compensation claims, as well as overall medical expenses,” stated Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), in this SHRM article.

The bottom line impacts on American employers are difficult to quantify, but one 2011 study (conducted several years before opioid-related deaths surged) revealed that the workplace costs of prescription opioid abuse, dependence, and misuse was $25.6 billion in 2007.

Evidently, this is not just a health crisis. It is a workplace crisis, too.

Blending Compassion with Strategic Insight

For employers, dealing with the effects of drug abuse is not a simple process. The degree to which different pockets of your organization are affected will vary, and managers will have different personal preconceptions about addicts. To counter judgmental attitudes, it has long been accepted that addiction is a disease rather than a moral failing, while some psychologists maintain that it is helpful to approach it as a type of compulsive behavior.

Indeed, it can be productive to view the issue through a compassionate lens. But at the same time, care alone will not help HR leaders tackle the problem methodically. Strategic action based on hard data is also required.

When tackling a complex problem like addiction, employers can take a page from the book of HR leaders who are using data to gather and act on specific insights. One HR analytics team in a growing city, for example, looked at safety incidents through different dimensions—such as job function, age, or tenure—providing a clear view of what action was needed to address potential issues.

Analyzing patterns related to addiction has limitations and for a good reason. HR typically does not have access to the detailed health record of every employee, and drug testing can only be conducted under specific circumstances.

But, it is possible to uncover general patterns while respecting the privacy of individual employees. This will enable you to determine where you are affected and where you need to focus your efforts in terms of intervention programs and managing skills shortages. Follow these steps to make data-driven decisions and to tackle the opioid issue effectively:

Step 1: Measure the Impact with Absence Data

To start, gauge the impact of the problem within your organization using absence data. There is no point in rushing out with a strategy if you are not affected, or in applying across-the-board interventions if it is a pressing problem within a specific pocket of your organization.

To determine which employee populations are impacted, follow these steps:

  1. Look at absence patterns over the past 3 years. Keep in mind that the typical worker misses an average of 10.5 days per year, while workers with pain medication use disorders miss an average of 29 days per year nearly three times as much.
  2. Once you have zoned in on populations with the highest rates of change and/or more absences than the overall population, it is important to look at the nature of the absence days. People call in sick for a number of reasons, but with addiction, you will see certain patterns, such as:
  • Periodic, short absences; and
  • Increasing frequency of absences (for example, absences start happening once every month, once every 2 weeks, and then every week).

Obviously, it is not possible to pinpoint precisely who has a drug addiction problem based on this information, and HR cannot ask someone if he or she has an addiction issue. The goal is to uncover populations who are likely affected.

Join us tomorrow for part two of this article.

Ian Cook is the Head of Workforce Solutions at Visier Analytics.

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