News, Culture & Society

HALF of America’s HR departments say opioids have affected their workforce, study finds 

Nearly half of US businesses say that the opioid epidemic is affecting their offices and work sites, a new study suggests. 

Nearly one in three Americans knows someone struggling with an opioid addiction. That person might be a friend, a family member, or a co-worker. 

The addiction crisis is not isolated to the shadows and most vulnerable populations in the US. It is widespread and increasingly affecting homes and workplaces alike.  

A survey by The Hartford, an insurance company, found that in addition to the half of companies not already feeling the effects of opioid addiction another third expect that they will in the future. 

Half of HR personnel say that opioid addiction affects the workers they interact with – but only a quarter know how to spot the warning signs or how to help struggling co-workers 

And companies are already bracing for the financial impact that two-thirds of HR professionals believe opioid addiction is having or will have on their businesses. 

Last year, 72,000 people died of drug overdoses, driven by jaw-dropping rates of opioid misuse. 

Prior to 2017, 2016 held the record for the highest number of fatal drug overdose (64,000). 

That year, 217 people died of overdoses on on the job – a one-third increase over the previous year. 

Given the findings of The Hartford’s survey of more than 2,500 workers, companies are much aware of this issue, but employees and human resources professionals are unsure how to identify people struggling with addiction, much less how to help them.

Of the 2,000 workers, just 18 percent felt confident that they would recognize the signs of opioid addiction. 

Human resources professionals felt a little more confident, with one quarter responding that they would know addiction if they saw it. 

But, overall, under 20 percent of both groups felt capable of reducing opioid addiction risks for themselves and their colleagues. 

If simply being concerned for the well-being of their employees isn’t enough, the National Safety Council (NSC) provides some financial motivations for employers to reduce these risks, as well as tips for how to accomplish this. 

In total, the opioid epidemic is estimated to cost the US economy some $40 billion a year (that’s not including the cost of other addictions). 

And the NSC says that employers have to spend three times more on healthcare costs for employees with substance abuse disorders than they do on other employees. 

Cutting these costs – and protecting the health of their employees requires both preventative and reactive measures. The NSC urges employers to maintain strong policies against drug use, screen for opioids specifically and train employees to recognize warning signs that someone may be misusing or at risk for misusing opioids. 

‘A lot of this is just being close to someone, so you can recognize changes in behavior or relationships or missing more work, or longer unexplained breaks,’ says Shannon Hartley, chief marketing officer at Shatterproof, an addiction advocacy group that is partnering with The Hartford to help educate employees.  

On the other hand, ‘we don’t want to create a culture where colleagues are trying to diagnose one another.’ 

Instead, employees should be taught to encourage their co-workers – gently and non-judgmentally to seek help. 

We don’t want to create a culture where colleagues are trying to diagnose one another

Shannon Hartley, chief marketing officer, Shatter Proof advocacy 

Employers, in turn, need to be sure that they work closely with healthcare providers to establish plans for their workers that give equal coverage to mental health and misuse issues as they do to other diseases. 

And not only equal monetary coverage, but in terms of the type and duration of treatment. 

Employers need to make sure they provide ‘benefits that really support the chronic nature of disease, helping patients not only through not only acute addiction but through recovery support, behavioral support and medications,’ said Hartley. 

‘Addiction is not treated in a 28-day stay and employers need to make sure that benefits are providing equal treatment for mental health and substance abuse as  they are for other services, so that that doesn’t become a barrier to treatment itself.’ 

It is required by law that insurers cover substance abuse treatment and mental health services, but ‘that hasn’t always been implemented,’ said Hartley. 

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers aren’t allowed to deny someone coverage based on a ‘preexisting condition.’ 

That includes addiction and addiction treatment – for the moment.

Of course, no one wants their employees to get to that point in the first place, so Hartley says prevention is clear. 

There have been many horror stories, for example, of people injured on the job, whose pain pills were covered by their insurance – but who then got addicted and returned to work while high or in withdrawal, or even overdosed while at work. 

For this reason, employers have an obligation to teach their employees to advocate for themselves, too, fighting back if a doctor tries to over-prescribe.   

Instead, employers need to help ensure that their workers have access to pain management alternatives and, if they should be developing a substance issue, ‘be able to recognize it in themselves and go seek help,’ Hartley said. 

‘We see outstanding results [from addiction treatment], just like we do from treatment for so many other chronic diseases,’ she added. 

‘Addiction is not about bad choices, bad character, or bad people. It’s about a disease, and we need to treat it as such.’