Employers must be aware of drug abuse

By Chrstine Hansen | The Daily Record (Md.)

In a 2017 survey conducted by the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating preventable deaths at work, more than 70 percent of employers in the U.S. have been impacted by prescription drugs. The prescription drug epidemic in the U.S. is far-reaching, and costs organizations billions of dollars each year. Yet, only 19 percent of employers feel extremely prepared to deal with prescription drug misuse, according to the survey.

Navigating Maryland laws regarding drug abuse is somewhat tricky, says Brian Markovitz, a Beltsville-based labor and employment attorney at Joseph, Greenwald & Lake. While Markovitz largely focuses on helping victims who have suffered severe injustice in the workplace, he says when it comes to drug abuse in the workplace, employers should take immediate action.

“If you have anyone abusing drugs, you fire them. If they are currently abusing drugs, you can’t have someone working there. You just don’t know what they will do,” Markovitz says. Under current Maryland law, employers can drug test their employees, as long as it is a “legitimate business reason.” The law dictates the procedures for testing, confidentiality and other procedures. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act has provisions that may protect workers who have been rehabilitated or in recovery.

“You cannot discriminate against anyone because they used to be a drug abuser,” says Markovitz. “If they have a history, and they are rehabilitated, they are protected by the ADA.” Markovitz says the courts are not super clear on what constitutes being in recovery or rehabilitated, especially how long of a period an employee has not been on drugs. That’s why he says it needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. Employers also have to keep liability in mind.

“These drugs in particular are so addictive, and it takes a certain amount of income to keep getting these drugs. Sometimes people are so desperate, they will do things you don’t want,” Markovitz says.

Bert Alicea, a licensed psychologist and vice president of employee assistance programs at West’s Health Advocate Solutions says employers should not only make their drug policies clear, but to also make all resources – wellness programs and services – easily available so employees know how and where to access them.

He and his colleague, Dr. Raffi Terzian, a board-certified emergency physician, senior vice president of clinical operations and senior medical director at Health Advocate, recently presented at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference on the topic of opioids and the workplace.

“A lot of attention has been placed on the opioid crisis and it’s a critical public health problem – specifically, prescription opioid use, misuse and abuse,” Terzian says.

Alicea and Terzian recommend employers develop clear guidelines on their drug policies. Eighty-one percent of employers lack a comprehensive drug-free workplace policy, according to the National Safety Council survey. That shouldn’t prevent employers from developing guidelines says Alicea. The U.S. Department of Transportation has one of the best.

“DOT’s guidelines really are the gold standard of guidelines. It includes clear policies on testing and is a legal- and federally-mandated policy,” Alicea says.

What makes the Department of Transportation’s drug testing policy stand out is its inclusion of the testing of opioids. According to the National Safety Council’s survey, 41 percent of those who drug test all employees are not testing for synthetic opioids at all.

Recognizing the signs of opioid use and abuse are key. Employers should provide training programs for managers and supervisors and provide a safe anonymous place for all staff to report potential issues.

“Turn this from an ‘I’ issue into a ‘we’ issue. It takes a village – not just the chief – to raise levels of awareness,” Alicea says.

Alicea believes employers should, in addition to substance abuse training, consider adding “reasonable suspicion” training for managers and supervisors. This training prepares supervisors on how to appropriately and effectively identify possible substance abuse in the workplace, and what to do when they suspect it. Reasonable suspicion training also helps mitigate potential liability for companies. While slurred speech, staggering walk, lack of concentration and sleepiness may be signs of substance abuse or misuse, there may be other signs an employee is struggling, such as excessive tardiness or absences.

Overall, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, says Marc Engel, a Bethesda-based partner and employment attorney at Lerch Early Brewer. Engel represents for-profit and nonprofit employers in employment claims, and with more than 30 years of litigation and counseling experience, is a sought-after speaker on employment issues.

“Employers need to be careful. It’s a delicate balance of empathy for an employee versus taking appropriate steps to ensure an employee’s actions do not harm them or others in the workplace,” he says.

By Dave Shadovitz | HR Executive

The workplace is the perfect place for intervention, experts suggest.

Attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference who were in search of some disturbing numbers weren’t disappointed during a Monday morning session on the opioid crisis titled “Addressing Prescription Overuse in the Workplace.”

Below are just a sampling of figures fitting that description. They were shared by Health Advocates’ Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations Raffi Terzian and Vice President of EAP+Work/Life Services Norbert Alicea at SHRM’s gathering in Chicago this week:

  • In 2016, 11.8 million people abused prescription medication;
  • 116 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses;
  • More than 70 percent of employers are impacted by prescription drugs;
  • Prescription-painkiller abuse costs employers almost $42 billion due to loss of productivity; and
  • Providers wrote nearly a quarter of a million opioid prescriptions in 2013, enough for every American adult to have his or her own bottle of pills.

Employers are worried—and rightfully so. A recent study by the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit association of more than 420 large U.S. employers, found that eight in 10 employers were concerned about the opioid crisis at work, Terzian said. Yet despite this fact, he added, only 30 percent of them reported they have restrictions in place for prescription opioids.

(NBGH issued a recommendation earlier this week that employers work with their health plans and pharmacy-benefits managers to ensure they are implementing national guidelines for prescribing opioids.)

Alicea addressed the necessity for more thorough training so managers and supervisors are better equipped to recognize the red flags. They need to be able to identify the early warning signs, such as absenteeism on Mondays and Fridays (or the day after a payday), lateness, poor quality of work, theft and morale, he said. (He also touched on this topic in a brief video recorded at the conference. See below.)

Workers, he said, often know long before HR that a person has an issue, and they’re looking to see what HR is doing or what the manager or supervisor is going to do about this troubling problem.

“I can’t even tell you how many times an HR person has called me about a problem employee who has tested positive, even though it has been going on for five years,” said Alicea, adding that the problem often has less to do with the employee and more to do with the manager or supervisor who has allowed it to continue.

“HR needs to help the managers and supervisors understand that this is a real issue and teach them how to supportively confront employees, including what to say and what not to say,” Alicea said. “That’s where HR can come in as a partner, helping them focus on identifying the early warning signals and helping them remain objective.”

HR also needs to educate them on the barriers they are likely to run into and how they may be enabling the problem to continue.

“I always tell managers and supervisors to use ‘I’ messages,” said Alicea. “When you’re speaking to an individual about work-performance issues, stay away from those blame statements that include the word ‘you.’ ‘You need help. You have an alcohol or substance-abuse problem.’ I think it’s a lot better that they take a step back and address it as, ‘We have a problem. The organization has a problem. We are concerned about your work-performance issues and, based on what we have observed in the last hour, we’re going to send you for a medical evaluation, which includes a drug and alcohol test.’ ”

Employers have a critical role to play in addressing the opioid crisis at work, Alicea said. “Think about it for a second: What’s the second or third question that you’re asked in a social situation? ‘How are you, how’s the family, how’s the job?’ Whether we love our job or hate it, we all take pride in it.”

By threatening a person’s job, he explained, you’re threatening the “core values” of that individual and therefore have a much higher probability of success.

“If you have an employee who’s worked for you for 10 years—and they’re a relatively good employee, and they end up testing positive—to terminate that employee, retrain another employee, and then go ahead and hire that [other employee who could also have a substance-abuse problem] will cost you more money in the long run than to give that person an opportunity for rehabilitation by putting them on a last-chance agreement,” Alicea said.

The workplace is “the perfect place for the intervention, better than any place else in the world,” he said.

By Simon Shaykhet | 7ABC Action News (WXYZ-TV)

Opioid abuse in the US is staggering. One place you may not think of it being a problem is at work, but the most recent stats show the number of people dying from overdoses on the job has increased 32 percent in one year. And we found some employers are finding new ways to help employees who want to fight their addiction.

Joe used to be addicted to prescription painkillers and opioids and heroin. The disease drove him to constantly crave the high, even on the job.

“I used to come to work under the influence of drugs every day and, obviously, in the world that I worked in, construction, it’s obviously an unsafe mix,” Joe said.

With opioid abuse at an all-time high it’s now becoming an on-the-job issue. One poll found misusing prescription drugs impacts more than 70 percent of US workplaces.

“People have a vision or a misconception that a drug addict or a drug user uses out in the streets, whether it’s in alleys or hidden corners,” Dr. Sal Raichbach, psychologist with the Ambrosia Treatment Center, says.

Raichbach helps people fight addiction and tells us the person in the cubicle next to you could be abusing drugs.

“We’ve seen impaired professionals. We’ve seen teachers, we’ve seen physicians, we’ve seen blue collar workers, we’ve seen white collar workers. It can inflict just about anyone, because addiction is a disease,” he says.

That same poll also reveals 65 percent of employers say on the job drug use is a justifiable reason to fire someone. But we found some companies aren’t showing these workers the door, they’re offering them a second chance.

Norbert Alicea, a licensed psychologist with Health Advocate, tells us, “What they are now doing is saying, ‘OK, if we had an employee that worked for us for 10 years and they now test positive for drugs or alcohol, do we really want to terminate that employee? Or do we want to give that employee an opportunity to get into, you know, some type of program that we can help them and still retain their job?'”

Some employers put employees with drug problems under special contracts. It’s like a last chance agreement: Get professional help, sober up and your job will be waiting for you.

“These programs can be a win-win for employers and employees alike,” Raffi Terzian, MD, medical director at Health Advocate says.

Joe says his employer and union paid for him to go to rehab. Now he’s kicked drugs, is back at work, and married with a family. “I do think this program saved my life,” he says.

The opioid crisis is also hitting America in its pocket book, costing employers, the health care and criminal justice systems hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

To view the video broadcast, click the link here.

By Nick Otto | Employee Benefit News

Employers weighing how to deal with substance abuse issues among their workforce are facing an expensive task as the cost of abuse continues to skyrocket from healthcare costs and lost productivity.

“We’re all aware and have come to understand this has become a major public health crisis on a national, state and community levels,” said Raffi Terzian, senior VP of clinical operations and senior medical director at Health Advocate.

The cost burden for people with employer-based healthcare coverage saw an eight-fold increase since 2004, Terzian said Monday, speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management annual conference here.

Employees who often abuse drugs are two to five times more likely take unexcused absences, quit or be fired within one year of employment or be involved in workplace incidents, he added.

But Terzian points to recent National Business Group on Health data that shows only 21% of employers have programs in place to help manage prescription opioid abuse.

And for employers looking to put a program in place, or beef up existing programs, Norbert J. Alicea, executive vice president of EAP+ Work/life services at Health Advocate says managers need to focus on the red flags and early warning signals — both physical and behavioral — of substance abuse.

Among some of the early warning symbols, he says, are frequent absenteeism on days like Monday or Friday, or drastic increases in tardiness and use of sick leave.

“Also look for a change in morale among colleagues,” he added. “Employees know long before HR knows that a person has an issue.”

In addition, Alicea advised employers to train managers to focus on these early warning signs and teach them how to supportively confront workers.

“Use ‘I messages.’ Stay away from blame statements which are ‘you need help’ and instead ones like ‘I am concerned,’” he said. “Managers and supervisors struggle with tact. It isn’t so much what they say, but how they say it, and that’s where HR can come in and assist them with that conversation.”

In addition to employee engagement in combating substance abuse, Alicea said many employers are also taking steps to change culture, such as moving away from a zero tolerance policy.

From a financial standpoint, it is 4 to 5 times better to offer rehabilitation for workers than to terminate, hire and retain new talent, he added.

He also says employer scan take more proactive approaches to stemming the stigma around substance abuse. Alcohol awareness month, suicide prevention numbers … create visibility around the topics and engage workers, he added.