How to manage opioid addiction in the workplace

Addiction happens in the office as well as in the home.
Addiction happens in the office as well as in the home.
Image: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
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Every day, an average of 130 people die from opioid overdoses in the US. If we look at the the workplace, it is a microcosm of the broader culture: The  US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that between 2013 and 2016 deaths in the workplace from accidental overdose increased by at least 38% each year,  and they continue to rise.

It’s a common enough occurrence that there are now official guidelines for employers and workers on how to use Naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug in cases of emergency.

Throughout the course of my decades-long career as a marriage and family therapist, and as a CEO and founder of a specialty benefits company, I have seen firsthand the kinds of performance issues, communication challenges, and struggles that arise from addiction in the workplace.

Some companies, including mine, offer employee assistance programs that provide services and management support for substance abuse and addiction in the workplace. During the course of designing these programs, I’ve seen up close what works—and what doesn’t—to help employees struggling with addiction.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reported that 70% of people who abuse drugs in the US hold jobs. That means that of the 2 million people suffering from opioid addiction, 1.4 million are spending time in workplaces across the country.

Research from the National Safety Council reveals that when employers initiate and support treatment for prescription drug addiction, it’s more effective in the long term than when the addicted person begins treatment at the urging of family or friends. 

Though opioid abuse does not discriminate, some regions and occupations have been more affected than others. A recent study shows that the construction industry has been hit particularly hard.  Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont have the highest incidences of opioid-involved deaths. In these areas, issues of employment and opioid addiction are even more inseparable than elsewhere.

Businesses need to know how to help and support employees suffering from addiction. Here are some points that every business owner or manager, or anyone who spends time in a workplace, needs to take into consideration now.

Partner with a specialized outside program

Services like employee assistance programs are designed specifically to help workers in difficult situations when an employer is not equipped to do so. The programs provide education, counseling, and treatment options, including rehab for those who need it.

Confidentiality is mandated, and should be taken seriously. If a corporation partners with an effective program, it can provide so many more options for identification, education, and treatment of substance abuse than a typical human resources department.

An effective program will also provide confidential counseling sessions with a mental health professional, paid for by the employer. The goal is to ensure that cost is not a barrier preventing addicted people or their family members from getting the help they need.

An employee assistance program can direct employees to support groups and other community resources, and can provide referrals to treatment programs. When support resources extend to employees’ family members and close communities, they can help nurture stability and healing that positively impact the person’s at-work performance.

It’s worth noting that these programs have been shown to yield significant business outcomes, with returns between $1.49 and $13 per dollar invested. So when reviewing program options, take a close look at engagement, utilization, and results.

Stop stigmatizing opioids

The opioid crisis in itself is real and devastating, but it’s a symptom of larger problems. Opioids may be receiving the most current media coverage, but the patterns of addiction remain the same. Rather than focusing on a single drug, develop a plan that addresses addiction more broadly. Not only will this strike at the root of the problem, but it will also create opportunities for employees suffering from alcoholism and other dependencies to get help.

Creating a formal statement of policies and procedures is important, especially in the changing legal landscape of marijuana use and possession. But your work should not stop there; once a policy is in place, communication is key.

Help reduce the stigma around addiction by distributing information to employees. Encourage them to seek confidential support from trustworthy programs that you have provided. It’s importance to give guidance to employees who are concerned about their co-workers, as well. Team members work alongside one another every day, and they may see the signs earlier than anyone else. Educate people about indicators of addiction and let them know that professional and safe resources are available for them or for anyone else.

Provide the right mental health care coverage

We know that lower barriers to entry for seeking help means greater chances that an employee will take advantage of an available resource. Make sure your mental health care coverage reflects that.

Mental health professionals are trained to help people struggling with addiction, and it is imperative to always refer to professionals for appropriate care and assistance. Colleagues, HR, and managers should not attempt to counsel or diagnose anyone in the workplace, and business leaders should make sure that people are not taking matters into their own hands. If unsure how to respond to a situation, the professionals in an employee assistance program are there to help..

Focus on performance, not addiction

It is an HR leader’s job to provide a safe and confidential way to report workplace problems—not to become a watchdog for drug and alcohol abuse.

The safest and most effective way to ensure an employee’s wellbeing is to track key metrics at all times. Hard numbers around absenteeism, low productivity, frequent callouts, or lateness can speak to performance concerns, but they are not always addiction or substance related. These metrics can be useful to make sure a manager is acting on concrete concerns, rather than unsubstantiated suspicion. Proof that an employee’s productivity has dropped can open the door to a confidential discussion.

Having resources in place like managers trained in substance abuse issues, ready information about support groups for individuals and families, and referrals for treatment programs will make it easier to help employees understand their options and to seek treatment.

Support return-to-work transitions for employees in recovery

Addiction carries many misconceptions and stigmas. It’s important for your organization to provide professional training to correct misinformation and get teams on the same page. Many well-intentioned people want to help a struggling co-worker but don’t know how.

Make sure you have resources that can equip managers and colleagues for an employee’s return to work following rehab or recovery-related time off related. A mental health consultant can offer guidance on communication best practices and team-building to ensure a successful reintegration into the workplace that supports the employee’s well-being.

The only path toward ending this crisis—and the crisis of addiction more generally—is to see it for the mental health issue it is, and to respond in kind.

Punitive policies only hurt employees and organizations alike. Proactive, compassionate programs will be critical to reducing overdose deaths and substance abuse, and they will improve your business outcome and culture as a result.