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Working WellThe Opioid Addiction Epidemic Grows in the Workplace

America has an opioid problem; so do employers. How can companies address substance abuse among their workforce?
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Opioid addiction issues continue growing in the workplace.

Whenever I do research for an article about rising pharmacy costs, I get sidetracked to a related issue: the opioid addiction crisis in America. Of course, not everyone on prescription medication or specialty drugs gets addicted, but it can happen and have a disastrous impact.

There is A LOT of research out there that reinforces the scope of the country’s opioid problem. A recent Washington Post article cited that “one-third of long-term users say they’re hooked on prescription opioids.” An NPR story from November cites that 20.8 million Americans have a substance abuse disorder. The recently passed 21st Century Cures Act — approved by a 94-5 vote — includes $1 billion for opioid prevention, which has been praised by members of both political parties.

WF_WebSite_BlogHeaders-13Substance abuse spans from alcohol to prescription meds to non-prescription meds. So, I spoke with Julie Stich, associate vice president of content at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, about how companies can address substance abuse in their workforce. The foundation recently conducted a survey of 344 organizations in the U.S. and Canada on the topic of mental health and substance abuse benefits.

Of the respondents, 62 percent reported that depression is somewhat-to-very prevalent in their workforce. Some 50 percent reported the prevalence of alcohol addiction, 32 percent prescription drug addiction and 29 percent nonprescription drug addiction. Two out of three (67 percent) believed that substance abuse or mental health problems have an impact of work performance in areas like absenteeism/tardiness, overall job performance and physical health. Also, nearly a third (31 percent) of U.S. respondents reported that they did not have method in place to combat opioid abuse.

This is a snapshot of a limited number of companies, but based on these results and the growing statistics of opioid abuse outside this study, Stich and I discussed some implications of and solutions for opioid abuse in the workplace.

Substance abuse, although following under the umbrella of wellness, is best dealt with in an employee assistance program than a wellness program, said Stich. EAPs can handle a number of vital things, like resources, referrals, counseling and education.

Education, she added, could include lunch and learns or speakers who can tell workers about these issues: what to look for, signs of addiction, etc.

Many survey respondents did report that their organizations offer some sort of benefit of prevention initiative, according to the foundation’s study. Ninety-one percent said they offered EAP services, and 38 percent said they offered a wellness program with some component related to mental health or substance abuse.

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Julie Stich

One key aspect and problem to deal with in the workplace are certain barriers that may stop a struggling employee from utilizing these benefits. For example, noted Stich, employees may not want to acknowledge their problem or they may fear admitting it will threaten their job security.

“But I think if the employer is taking the time and the resources to offer [EAPs], they should communicate it quite frequently to their employees, remind them that it’s here,” said Stich. “They should really highlight it and reassure the employees over and over again that, ‘This is confidential. We will not find out that you called. Use it. That’s why it’s there.’”

Another key aspect: If a worker has admitted the problem and has been out on leave to deal with a mental health or substance abuse issue (for example, rehab), what does their return to work look like? Planning for the return is something employers tend not to do a whole lot about, said Stich.

Please also read: Pain Points: Prescription painkiller abuse has long been a growing problem in the U.S.

She referenced someone who compared how different it is to be out on a mental health disability than a physical disability. “You break your leg, you’re out for a while, and people send you cards and cheesecake. And when you come back they bring flowers and ask how you are and give you balloons,” she said. “But when it’s a mental health or substance abuse issue, nobody talks about it.”

Anything an employer can do to ease this transition is welcome, she added. Some suggestions?

  • Offering a flexible, gradual return to work
  • Prepping co-workers before the employee returns
  • Educating the manager or supervisor before the employee returns
  • Having a follow up conversation with the employee when they return

Also, Stich said, “some organizations will talk to the worker before they come back and give them actual talking points, some things that they can say to address questions that come up from their co-workers.”

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below, or email at aburjek@humancapitalmedia.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.