HR Management & Compliance

Managing the Far-Reaching Effects of Opioids in the Workplace

How much do you really know about the hidden costs of opioid use?

Source: Rabbitti / shutterstock

The National Safety Council (NSC) recently conducted a survey that indicates 75% of U.S. employers have been directly impacted by opioids, but a startling statistic is that only 17% feel extremely well prepared to deal with the issue.

The survey results also show that employers are more concerned about hiring qualified workers, employee benefits costs, and worker compensation costs than they are about employee use of opioids on the job. However, opioid misuse–legal or illicit–can negatively impact all other issues employers cited as more concerning.

The NSC encourages HR professionals and business leaders to use the free Substance Use Cost Calculator for Employers to assess the financial impact of this issue in your individual workplace. The calculator is an authoritative, easy-to-use tool providing specific measures pertaining to the cost of substance use based upon your number of employees, industry, and state.

Additional key findings from the survey include:

  • Only 50% of employers are very confident that they have the appropriate HR policies and resources to deal with opioid use and misuse in the workplace.
  • 38% of employers have experienced absenteeism or impaired worker performance, and 31% have had an overdose, arrest, a near miss, or an injury because of employee opioid use.
  • 86% of employers believe taking opioids even as prescribed can impair job performance, yet only 60% have policies in place requiring employees to notify their employer when they are using a prescription opioid.
  • 79% are not very confident that frontline workers can spot warning signs of opioid misuse, and 72% are not very confident that supervisors/managers can spot warning signs.
  • Encouragingly, 41% of employers would return an employee to work after he or she receives treatment for misusing prescription opioids.

While addiction and mental health issues have traditionally been addressed outside the workplace, the scale of the epidemic has risen to a level where employers must become part of the solution. The average American worker spends about 35 hours per week at work, thus the workplace is a critical channel for helping those who are dealing with opioid misuse. Employers that have strong workplace policies, robust education for employees, progressive health benefit programs, a healthy workplace culture, and well-trained managers create a safe and healthy work environment in which both employees and businesses can thrive.

Some initial steps to address opioids in the workplace include:

  • Obtaining senior leadership engagement and support;
  • Educating employees to reduce stigma and encourage treatment;
  • Training managers and supervisors on the role they play in identifying potential opioid misuse;
  • Creating compassionate, comprehensive policies;
  • Contemporizing employer healthcare offerings and pharmacy benefit programs; and
  • Developing a workplace culture of health and wellness that reduces stigma and supports recovery.

It starts with being prepared and proactive. The National Safety Council provides a free Prescription Drug Employer Kit to help employers navigate this sensitive topic. The toolkit includes materials to examine and update your drug-free workplace and employee benefit programs, a guide for proactively addressing opioids in the workplace, fact sheets, posters, and more. Based on additional survey results, the NSC is adding components to the kit, including templates for HR professionals to use when updating or creating robust drug-free workplace policies and programs. The refreshed version of the toolkit will be released in September 2019.

Workplace overdose deaths involving drugs or alcohol have increased by at least 25% for 5 consecutive years, so it is clear employers must address issues such as opioid addiction. The HR community can have a tremendous impact on the sobering trend of opioid misuse and death. Research indicates that individuals struggling with substance use disorders have better sustained recovery rates if treatment is initiated and monitored by their employer than if that treatment is initiated by friends or family. Don’t wait any longer—take that first step today!

Additional resources and information about drug misuse in the workplace are available at A copy of the survey questionnaire and full methodology is available here.

 More Resources on Opioids and Addiction from the HR Daily Advisor

Gretchen Coffman is the Chief Human Resources Officer at the National Safety Council.

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