Opioids in the Workplace: What Role Do Businesses Play?

If last year’s number of opioid-related overdoses in the United States wasn’t staggering enough — as many as 50,000 were estimated — what’s equally unnerving is how widespread and decidedly mainstream prescription drug addiction has become. Overdoses — not cancer, not heart disease, not even car accidents—are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.1

office-worker-high-600No longer relegated to the outdated stereotypes about drug users, CEOs and managers have been forced to confront an uneasy truth in the workplace, namely that prescription opiate abuse is costing their companies somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 billion per year.2

And that sizable figure isn’t even factoring in the loss of productivity that goes hand in hand with dependency. As the number of workers who are hooked on prescribed pain relievers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and fentanyl increases, so does the battle of physical side effects from these drugs. Depression, sleepiness and lack of mental clarity results in more frequent absences, an increased need for workers’ compensation benefits and potential safety hazards. Workplace theft has also become an issue when someone can no longer afford to support their habit and will acquire their fix by any means necessary.

Bottom line? It’s clear that opioids in the workplace are a social problem that can no longer be ignored, but what exactly should businesses be doing to kickstart prevention measures and to help counsel their employees who may be addicted already?

Detecting the Warning Signs

If someone is prescribed, say, Vicodin for a chronic condition, it’s not necessarily unusual for them to take the correct dosage for a long period of time. But if someone is consistently exceeding the amount that a doctor would typically prescribe for a particular malady, there are a few identifying markers worth noting.

Any unusual behavior for a particular employee such as taking an uncharacteristic amount of sick days, randomly disappearing for long blocks of time throughout the day, suddenly becoming withdrawn or irritable, a decline in work performance or strained relationships with co-workers may be signs of addiction. There are also identifiable physical manifestations including sweating, slurred speech, inability to focus or recall a given task or details, bloodshot eyes, tremors and vomiting. Of course any of those symptoms alone don’t necessarily equal a problem, but when a few of them continue to crop up, it’s probably worth looking into.

Confronting someone about suspected drug abuse is far from uncomplicated. Addicts are often quite adept at covering their tracks, so getting them to confess their secret isn’t exactly easy, especially if their employment might be at stake.

To make these sort of confrontations infinitely less prickly, many workplaces have gone “drug-free.” With specific protocol in place, usually beginning with a letter that invokes a 60-day grace period for getting clean before any strict action is taken, the problem is acknowledged in a non-threatening way with a call to action.3

Addiction Isn’t Overcome in a Vacuum

There are varying theories on what businesses should be doing to help employees who struggle with addiction, but there’s a common variable in every approach, particularly when it’s something a person can’t conquer alone.

Many companies offer employee assistance programs that offer counseling resources, while others focus on education and training for supervisors on the signs and symptoms of drug abuse and proper procedures for someone who exhibits behavior consistent with addiction. And depending on where you live, a quick internet search, a local church, hospital or nonprofit can provide community resources that specialize in mental health and addiction recovery.

One program that’s specifically tailored for the needs of working professionals is The Landing at Lakeside Behavioral Health System in Memphis, Tennessee. Understanding that each person’s needs are unique, they don’t take a cookie cutter approach to treatment. While staying connected with family, and yes, even their life back at the office, The Landing provides specialized treatment for everything from substance abuse and detox to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses in a safe, supportive environment.

If you know anyone who struggles with substance abuse or mental health issues, don’t hesitate to call The Landing at Lakeside for more information at 901-500-8517.

1. Vance, Travis. “America’s Opioid Epidemic and the Workplace: 3 Lessons for Employers.” The Business Journals, July 26, 2017.
2. “Societal Costs of Prescription Opiate Abuse, Dependence and Misuse in the United States.” Pain Medicine, Volume 12, Issue 4, April 1, 2011.
3. Wilkie, Dana. “Prescription Drug Abuse: Spotting the Addicted Employee.” Society For Human Resource Management, November 4, 2013.

Written by Christa A. Banister

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