The growing opioid epidemic and its impact on employee behavior and health creates unique challenges for employers. Although no perfect response is available, now is the time for employers to rethink their drug testing and counseling programs in order to keep their employees and workplace safe.
A focus on education, prevention and counseling may help minimize the impact of opioid use on the workplace.
Employers should consider the following:
1. Create an environment where employees can disclose opioid-related issues
Given the recent rise of opioid use, employers should consider encouraging employees to tell you when they have a problem or suspect that another employee may have an issue with prescription painkillers. This starts by creating a workplace environment conducive to the free exchange of information.
Balance the concern of being viewed as an employer who attempts to invade employees’ private home life with later dealing with an employee who quits, overdoses or creates a safety concern due to an addiction you may have ignored.
The key to preventing opioid addiction is educating employees on the potential harmful impacts of abusing painkillers. If you become aware of an employee’s potential abuse of opioids, attempt to approach the employee in a non-confrontational manner to offer assistance with this condition.
Pay special attention to employees returning to work after an injury. Consult your counsel on navigating any potential ADA issues.
2. Reconsider zero-tolerance drug-testing policies
An employee who loses a job because he or she fails a drug test may fall further into the depression often caused by opioid use. Unemployment may lead to more drastic outcomes for the employee, including intentional or accidental overdose.
In order to avoid such a tragedy, employers should revisit their zero-tolerance drug-testing policies.
In light of the opioid epidemic, employers should consider removing any provision requiring automatic termination after the first positive drug test. Instead, amend the policy to include required counseling for employees who fail drug tests. This gives the employee a second chance to become “clean” and/or attempt to end their dependency, and it provides an opportunity to obtain much needed education and counseling on their condition.
The permitted use of prescription drug use at the worksite must also be clearly explained in the policy.
3. Monitor workers’ compensation claims
Many workers’ compensation carriers seek to minimize the costs of claims by finding the most inexpensive treatment option possible. Indeed, under the guise of “conservative” treatment, carriers may be more inclined to pay for opioid prescriptions to “treat” an on-the-job injury versus considering more aggressive treatment options in the first instance (even when medical providers recommend more aggressive treatment).
As such, there can be a higher incident of dependency simply in the name of reducing the financial impact of a workers’ compensation claim. Employers should monitor these trends to evaluate the care provided to injured workers.
Opioid use is increasing at an alarming rate and yet many employers have not addressed this concern in their policies and programs. No perfect plan is available, but you should begin working with counsel to take proactive steps to avoid risks to employees.
Signs & Symptoms of Opioid Addiction
The first step toward recovery is recognizing that you have a problem with opioids. The signs and symptoms of substance abuse can be physical, behavioral, and psychological. One clear sign of addiction is not being able to stop using the substance. It is also not being able to stop yourself from using more than the recommended amount.
Drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:
- Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly — daily or even several times a day
- Having intense urges for the drug that block out any other thoughts
- Over time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect
- Taking larger amounts of the drug over a longer period of time than you intended
- Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
- Spending money on the drug, even though you can’t afford it
- Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational activities because of drug use
- Continuing to use the drug, even though you know it’s causing problems in your life or causing you physical or psychological harm
- Doing things to get the drug that you normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
- Driving or doing other risky activities when you’re under the influence of the drug
- Spending a good deal of time getting the drug, using the drug or recovering from the effects of the drug
- Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug
Recognizing unhealthy drug use in family members
Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish normal teenage moodiness or angst from signs of drug use. Possible indications that your teenager or other family member is using drugs include:
- Problems at school or work — frequently missing school or work, a sudden disinterest in school activities or work, or a drop in grades or work performance
- Physical health issues — lack of energy and motivation, weight loss or gain, or red eyes
- Neglected appearance — lack of interest in clothing, grooming or looks
- Changes in behavior — exaggerated efforts to bar family members from entering his or her room or being secretive about where he or she goes with friends; or drastic changes in behavior and in relationships with family and friends
- Money issues — sudden requests for money without a reasonable explanation; or your discovery that money is missing or has been stolen or that items have disappeared from your home, indicating maybe they’re being sold to support drug use