Overdoses are now the number one cause of death for Americans under 50. Each day, 91 Americans die from opioid overdose and nearly half of those deaths involve a prescription opioid. There is no question that prescription opioid abuse is a serious problem in the US. But what about in the workplace? Are prescription opioids really a problem within the workplace itself?

The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that 7-in-10 employers have felt some negative impact from prescription drug usage. Some of these impacts will be familiar to employers. Other impacts won’t be so obvious.

Common Effects of Opioid Abuse in the Workplace

Increased absenteeism

As workers succumb to prescription opioid abuse they miss more and more work days. Time and again workers with opioid addictions profiled in the press say that once hooked, showing up for work didn’t matter to them anymore.

Impaired or decreased job performance
Workers who abuse prescription opioids aren’t able to perform their job duties competently and reliably. When a worker is high at work, or suffering the beginning of withdrawals, they undermine the safety and productivity of the entire workplace at risk.

Drug use at work
Workers who are abusing prescription opioids often take those drugs while at work in violation of workplace policies and safety practices. (Learn more in "Prescription Opioids and Safety Sensitive Work".) Drug use at work is not just inconvenient, with the user “disappearing” for long periods of time, this drug activity can be illegal and expose the employer to liabilities.

Undermined employee morale
As employees see a co-worker succumb to opioid abuse, morale will take a hit. Addicted employees can come to resent the extra burden of work put on them because not everyone in the workplace is pulling their weight. Also, when a drug addicted worker resorts to stealing at the workplace to buy drugs, any sense of trust, teamwork, and safety in the workplace is shattered for the other employees.

Testing positive for drugs
As more workers abuse opioids more drug tests come back with positive results. This leads to more health interventions and, possibly, more disciplinary actions. (Learn more in "An Introduction to Opiates and Drug Testing".)

Walking off the job to avoid drug testing
For some workers who are abusing opioids, simply being asked to take a drug test, either because of reasonable suspicion (Learn more in "What is Considered Reasonable Suspicion? A Look at the Criteria for With Cause Drug Testing in the Workplace".) or as part of the normal random testing rotation, is enough for them to abandon their job. They know they won’t pass the drug test and can’t face the results.

Hidden Effects of Opioid Abuse in the Workplace

Opioid abuse makes it hard to find qualified job applicants
In a recent report on PBS Newshour, one manufacturing employer shared that his company has had job openings that have gone unfilled for as long as two years due to the opioid crisis. He also shared that they “lose” 20-25% of their job applicants because those applicants cannot pass a drug screen for employment. This is a drastic increase to already high hiring costs.

Opioid abuse is undermining the available workforce
Economists at Goldman Sachs have suggested that the opioid crisis is behind the stagnation of US labor force participation rates. With only about 63% of the available labor force either working or actively looking for work despite the recovery, the economy cannot reach full employment and sustain its strength. This is driving employers to look beyond their own communities for new sources of workers.

Opioid abuse is substantially adding to employer’s health care costs
One study reported that employers paid 90% more on average in health care expenses for issues related to opioid dependence. Common sense says that health care for an employee who is abusing prescription opioids will be more expensive. The fact that the cost is catastrophically higher than a healthy employee isn’t widely realized.

Opioid abuse affects family members and their ability to work
The fallout from opioid abuse is most immediately felt by the person’s family in the form of lost and disrupted income, chaotic behavior, and criminal activity. However, few employers realize the effect on the caregiver’s ability to work and keep a job.

The constant worry and fear caused by a family member or loved one who is abusing opioids makes for a distracted worker, undermining productivity. Caregivers are often called upon to make sure the person abusing opioids makes it to doctor appointments, therapy sessions, and even court dates. This means that the caregiver is also absent from work during these appointments. When routines are disrupted, caregivers can also feel like they need to stay home to keep any eye on their family member or loved one once they are in recovery so that they don’t give into temptation and use again.

Given the guilt and shame that’s associated with drug abuse the caregiver might not tell their employer the real reason for their absence, making this kind of absence an invisible cost of opioid abuse.

Employers are Unprepared and Uninformed

The NSC also found that 71% of employers say that prescription drug misuse (including opioid abuse) is a disease that requires treatment. (Learn more in "A Look At Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics".) Clearly employers are interested in helping their employees recover. However, most employers are unprepared to deal with the problem and lack understanding of the results of opioid abuse on the workplace.

  • Only 19% of employers feel “extremely prepared” to deal with prescription opioid abuse in the workplace.
  • Only 67% of employers reported having policies & procedures in place to address this issue specifically.
  • 23% of employers either “didn’t know,” “were not at all confident,” or “not very confident” that their company’s insurance and benefits were appropriately structured to deal with this issue.
  • Only 17% of employers are “very confident” that supervisors and managers can identify opioid abuse on the job.
  • Not every employer is testing for opiates (only 76%) and even fewer test for synthetic opioids (59%).

Changing the Path

Opioid abuse in the workplace represents a $25.6B problem. Employers are in a position to help their workers recover. But to turn the tide on prescription opioid abuse requires coordinated efforts of employers and a continuing will to learn about and recognize the signs of drug abuse and the actual impacts on the workplace. (Learn more in "Signs of Drug Use in Employees: Behaviors That Might Signal Drug Use on the Job".) Increasing training for all levels of employees (from owners to management to line workers), implementing improved workplace policies, continuing drug testing procedures, and providing company insurance and benefits that are structured to provide the services needed for recovery are all steps employers can take to begin to change the path and reverse the course of increasing opioid abuse in the workplace. (Learn more in "Managing Opioids in the Workplace".)