The Reality of Opioids in the Workplace—and How Employers Can Respond
Despite what recent headlines may lead you to believe, misuse and abuse of opioids, as well as dependence on these drugs, is not a new problem. Opium and some of its derivatives are millennia old. What is new is the growing impact in the workplace.
As prescriptions for medications to manage pain have increased, so have addiction and its consequences. This issue is far reaching and widespread, affecting organizations within every industry and region. Further, its effects spread well beyond the individuals involved and have negative repercussions for the entire organization.
Now is the time to take action to address opioids in your workplace.
Understanding the Disease of Dependence
The first step to addressing the issue of substance abuse in the workplace is to understand that chemical dependence on alcohol or drugs like opioids is a disease, not a moral failure. In the case of opioids, these substances have medicinal value for many people, however they are highly addictive.
The majority of issues start with a legitimate prescription to manage pain related to an injury or condition. Over time, this morphs into abuse or misuse, sometimes to the point where the affected person needs the drugs to function normally and may become sick without them. In order to help those negatively impacted by opioids, it is critical to remove the stigma attached to this issue.
Dependence on opioids has now reached pandemic proportions. The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that more than 2 million Americans misuse or abuse prescription pain medications or heroin, another opioid.
There is no profile or demographic definition of someone misusing or abusing these substances – it affects all ages, genders, ethnicities, religions, education levels, tax brackets, areas of the country, and occupations. According to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unintentional overdose deaths now exceed deaths caused by car accidents.
Acknowledging the Reality of Opioids
This problem is widespread, and if it’s not something you’ve encountered previously, unfortunately, it’s likely to occur in the near future. Because of the breadth and depth of opioid use in this country, it is important organizations acknowledge that this is occurring and may happen in their workplace. People rely on these medications all the time, and unfortunately, it can sometimes develop from medicinal use to addiction.
It may help to think of substance abuse in the same category as other chronic illnesses. It is a serious disease that, in many cases, cannot be prevented by the individual or their employer–however, it is possible to decrease risk to the organization if handled appropriately.
Reducing Risk to Create a Safe Work Environment
There are a number of strategies that can help organizations effectively minimize risk while protecting all employees.
- Education and training. This is key to raising awareness of the issue among the entire workforce, including those affected who might be in denial. To reduce the stigma surrounding opioids, experts can help explain the difference between practical uses of these medications versus abuse, as well as how to identify those at risk. Rather than discussing only the dangers of opioid use, focus on how this issue impacts everyone, from personal and family issues to finances.
- Ongoing support of all employees. Ensure programs and resources are in place to support the individual as well as those around them within and beyond the workplace. Keep in mind that employees who are not taking opioids themselves may have family members at home experiencing addiction, which can still impact their productivity, focus and health.
- Reconsider policies. It is time to revisit zero tolerance or “drug free workplace” policies. Experience has shown that these can backfire and prevent people from seeking help. Further, some employees may need to responsibly take medications while at work to manage pain, not unlike treatment for other conditions. When creating or revising policies, focus on helping those in need, not punishing those impacted by this issue.
A safe work environment where employees feel supported is more productive and allows people to do their best work.
The Role of Employee Assistance Programs
There are many resources available to help organizations establish policies and take action to address opioids in the workplace, including Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). For organizations who work with an EAP, experts are often available to offer insights on company policies, provide training to all employees and work with individuals who may be experiencing challenges that could indicate a potential issue.
Through onsite training, EAPs can help provide both a proactive and preventive response, helping to dispel myths around this issue and reset stereotypes or preconceived notions of “users.” By destigmatizing substance abuse and clarifying the role of EAPs, it is possible to more effectively identify employees who may need support or assistance, at which time the EAP can help with referrals to counseling or treatment as needed.
In the face of increasing misuse and abuse of opioids, their use continues to create challenges in the workplace as organizations determine the best path forward. Opioids can be a valuable, effective medication to manage pain and physical suffering—however it’s necessary to utilize available resources and provide education, support and treatment to address potential issues for those employees at risk.