The opioid epidemic is now called the deadliest drug crisis in American history as each year more people overdose on these prescription painkillers – more than heroin and cocaine combined. In fact, opioid deaths now exceed car crashes as the leading cause of unintentional death.
The addiction crosses all social, economic, and racial boundaries and – inevitably – seeps into the workplace. 23% of the workforce has misused prescription painkillers, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. While some begin opioid abuse to ease the pain from injuries sustained while performing job duties, others’ addiction is the result of incidents that occur outside of the workplace. They are a chief concern for employers – and for us HR executives.
There are serious risks that affect co-workers, as well as quality control and overall production. Side effects include: rapidly developing addiction, withdrawal, permanent changes to brain chemistry, nausea, respiratory depression, increased sensitivity to pain, and driving impairment. The impact on brain chemistry is especially alarming as job capability and performance are at stake. An increase in workplace incidents, errors, and injuries can occur.
Companies incur significant financial and legal risks, such as an increased use of ER services, hospitalizations, related medical costs, and more workers’ comp claims. The cost per claim as a result of opioid abuse continues to grow, as well as the number of painkillers per claim. The National Safety Council cites The Hopkins-Accident Research Fund Study in 2012 for finding that workers prescribed even one opioid had average total claim costs more than three times greater than claimants with similar claims who didn’t get opioids.
It is the responsibility of us as HR executives to address the prevalence of these drugs to maintain a safe and healthy workplace. Effective Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), which discourage drug abuse, are crucial to balancing legitimately prescribed users who are at work. These programs offer tools such as talking points for employers, and even plans that emphasize how employees can work with their prescribers to see if a non-opioid prescription is an option.
When implementing an EAP, I always recommend that you involve the support of experts that can guide your company through this process. By creating an open workplace environment in which employers address the issue of opioid abuse and its potential consequences, employees are more likely to be educated and, as a result, make informed decisions regarding their pain.