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Employers Take Action to Address Opioid Use Disorder

December 7, 2022

The consequences of the substance use epidemic have affected employers as well. To better understand how employers have been trying to help their employees, we spoke with Jenny Burke, J.D., M.S. at the National Safety Council (NSC). The National Safety Council works to eliminate the leading causes of preventable death and injury, focusing their efforts on the workplace, roadway and impairment. NSC has more than 13,000 member companies, organizations and public agencies. NSC launched its opioid overdose prevention initiative in 2012 to shed light on and address the safety impact of substance use in the workplace.

In her role as Vice President of the Impairment Practice, Jenny advances the National Safety Council mission by leading initiatives on issues that may affect an employee’s ability to perform their work safely and normally.

What has been the effect of the overdose epidemic on employers?

The opioid overdose epidemic continues to have a sizeable impact on employers and employees, especially within construction, mining, transportation and material-moving occupations. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows nearly 400 people died at their workplace from an unintentional overdose in 2020, accounting for nearly 10% of all workplace fatalities.

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are not left at home when workers start their shifts. In fact, 67% of people with SUDs are employed. While 75% of employers say they have been directly affected by opioids, only 17% feel extremely well prepared to deal with the issue. Yet, impairment from drug and alcohol use is a safety concern that can lead to increased chances of workplace injuries and fatalities.

The prevalence of substance misuse has led to decreased employee wellbeing, safety risks and rising employer costs. People with untreated substance use disorders frequently have increased absenteeism and reduced productivity. Encouragingly, each employee who recovers from an SUD saves a company over $8,500 on averageand employer-initiated treatment is more successful than treatment initiated by friends or family members. With the proper tools, employers can help to address the opioid overdose crisis because their actions can save lives, improve morale and support improved worker wellbeing. NSC has tools that can help.

We have created many free resources for employers, such as our:

  • Opioids At Work Employer Toolkit, a collection of resources to help employers implement a workplace program on opioids and support employees struggling with opioid misuse
  • Substance Use Cost Calculator, a tool providing business leaders with specific information about the cost of substance use in their workplace based on number of employees, industry and state
  • Warn Me labels, self-stick reminders for insurance cards which empower individuals to have conversations with their medical providers about the risks of prescribed opioids and ask if an opioid alternative may be right for them
  • Additional information and resources to address workplace impairment, broken down by the different factors that can lead to impairment

How has the work of the National Safety Council adapted recently to the changing nature of the epidemic?

Recently, NSC conducted research with funding from the Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration to better understand the pandemic’s impact on workplaces. NSC found that employers believe the pandemic impacted employee mental health and substance use, and resulted in increased injuries and incidents in the workplace. Employers implemented a variety of measures to creatively and holistically address employee wellbeing, including:

  • Providing additional leave
  • Offering flexible work schedules
  • Hiring community navigators and employee wellness coaches
  • Providing more education, training and support to address stress
  • Providing financial support to families dealing with COVID-19
  • Implementing changes to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

Additionally, the NSC SAFER Workforce Trend Indicator Surveys found that feeling unsafe at work, physically or psychologically, is associated with negative mental health outcomes.

What strategies has the National Safety Council been encouraging employers to implement in order to address this problem?

Employers can take many steps to have a collective, positive impact on the overdose crisis. NSC recommends employers:

  • Support a stigma-free, recovery-friendly workplace culture where employees are not afraid to come forward to ask for help when they have a mental health or substance use problem – learn more about stigma from our partner, Shatterproof
  • Create flexible accommodation policies for employees who are prescribed opioids, both for treatment of pain and as medications for addiction treatment, to ensure a safe work environment
  • Provide education to employees on the safety impacts of substance use and how to receive assistance from their employer or within their community
  • Support employee return-to-work activities during and following substance use disorder and mental health treatment and/or leave
  • Ensure all workplaces that need or want it can access naloxone on-site and that emergency response staff are trained to administer it
  • Offer and expand Employee Assistance Programs to provide barrier-free preventive services, screening and early identification services, short-term counseling, referral to specialty treatment, and other behavioral health interventions related to substance misuse or mental health concerns – including reporting on whether and how EAPs were used and making sure employees know how to access EAPs
  • Ensure coverage of evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and offer or expand insurance plans to ensure equal coverage of non-opioid pain treatment options
  • Train supervisors and managers on recognizing and responding to impairment
  • Ensure safe, healthy and hazard-free workplaces to prevent traumatic injuries that may be treated with prescription opioids that can lead to impairment, misuse and/or addiction
  • Use proven technologies in the workplace – including in-vehicle systems, when appropriate – to detect and address impairment

As the funds from the opioid litigation come to states and localities, how can employers get involved?

Employers are on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, but that isn’t always recognized. Employers should collaborate with community-based, governmental and private organizations receiving funding and participate in offered programs. Employers should be at the table to ensure their needs are met to provide preventive services and adopt recovery-friendly workplace policies. Use the recommendations above and our Opioids at Work Employer Toolkit as starting points to utilizing the funds to create change.

Employers should also find information at the U.S. Department of Labor recovery-ready workplace resource hub for specific help with promoting employee recovery. Employment is a key way to help people with SUDs. Employers are critical to reducing stigma and isolation, and improving employees’ chances of long-term recovery. In nearly every industry, workers in recovery use fewer health care services, stay with a single employer longer, and take unscheduled leave at rates equal to or lower than their peers who never had an SUD.

What evidence-based programs would you like to see receive more funding?

NSC has endorsed The Principles for the Use of Funds from the Opioid Litigation and hopes that funding is directed to these five priority areas. While thorough evidence is lacking regarding the effectiveness of many workplace opioid and substance use interventions, NSC encourages funding be used for evidence-informed employment and workforce programs. Specifically, it is important to include funding to support programs that create supportive policies, workplace impairment training and other actionable educational resources.

It is equally important to find avenues to help people with substance use disorders re-enter the workforce. Funding should be used to provide incentives to workplaces that become recovery-friendly and/or focus on hiring workers in treatment/recovery. Recovery is good for both businesses and workers. As stated earlier, each employee who recovers from an substance use disorder saves a company more than $8,500 on average in turnover, replacement and health care costs.

All drug-free workplace programs should integrate mechanisms to further evaluate their efficacy and improve the evidence base for workforce interventions that support employee wellbeing and safety.