The numbers around the opioid epidemic are startling. The total economic burden of prescription opioid abuse in the U.S. is estimated to be $78.5 billion a year, which includes the costs of healthcare, lost productivity and addiction treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The use of prescription opioids can present a challenge to employers. While many of these medications can have a beneficial effect for patients with significant pain when taken as prescribed, there can be inherent risks and dangers — including accidents and potential overdose deaths.

However, these drugs are legally prescribed by licensed providers, and are sometimes prescribed in response to an injury that occurred in the workplace. Employers are being confronted by the increase in availability and use of these drugs, as well as the definition of “impairment” and the administration of workplace drug testing.

Bloomberg/file photo

The financial impact and potential danger of opioid use doesn’t stop at an organization’s front door, which is where advisers can help. Here are a few ways to provide guidance to clients on identifying and addressing potential opioid misuse in the workplace.

Identifying misuse
Unlike the stereotypical “addict” that many imagine, signs of opioid abuse in an employee is often more subtle than those in an employee abusing alcohol. An employee under the influence of opioid medication may seem relaxed and fully functional (some are and will stay this way), but educated observation can reveal misuse.

Signs of abuse include mood swings, fluctuations in energy level, and even moments of nodding off at their desk or elsewhere. As the drug begins to wear off, many will show evidence of withdrawal, including irritability, gastrointestinal distress and removing themselves from workplace activities or social contact.

Also see:How advisers can help clients address opioid treatment.”

The need to keep employees safe, functional and productive is magnified with opioid misuse as it can become serious quickly. The sooner an employer takes steps to address the problem, the better. By educating your clients on these signs and providing them with resources, you can help them identify abuse that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Identifying opioid abuse in the workplace is only the first step to addressing a very complicated issue. You can help your clients by recommending these proactive measures to help address abuse in their organizations.

Employers should proactively consider:

  • Educating employees about the dangers of using opioids in the workplace
  • Revising their organization’s management training to help managers spot signs of addiction
  • Updating workplace policies to address the ongoing epidemic of opioid abuse
  • Including opioid screening in workplace drug-testing programs

In misuse cases, HR policies should be vetted to include treatment options for the employee, when possible. By working with employee assistance providers and disability insurance carriers, employers can help ensure that an employee who may be at-risk is referred to the proper treatment. Disability carriers also can be instrumental in putting together a plan that helps the employee get the resources he or she needs to recover from abuse and, if necessary, return to work while receiving treatment.

The opioid epidemic is challenging workplaces and shows no signs of slowing. With some education, proactive measures and a plan for addressing misuse, your clients stand a fighting chance against this national crisis.

Jeff Guardalabene

Jeff Guardalabene

Guardalabene, PsyD, is senior behavioral health case manager at Standard Insurance Company.