Opioid Abuse Disorder: The Toll on Our Workforce

Apr 23, 2019

How is opioid use disorder affecting workplace safety, productivity and presenteeism? And what can employers do to help employees in need?

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Opioid use disorder is a well-known public health crisis, but not often discussed in the current epidemic is the impact this condition has in the workforce, particularly in regard to employee presenteeism, absenteeism and the availability of skilled labor.

More than 115 people died each day from prescription pain killer overdoses in 2016, a 40% increase from 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to the tragic human toll, opioid abuse had a significant economic toll on U.S. employers of more than $18 billion dollars and contributing to more than 64% of medically related absenteeism. (The Opioid Crisis Report)

In a survey conducted by the National Safety Council, 7 out of 10 human resource officials reported that their organizations felt the effects of opioid usage – including absenteeism, decreased productivity or safety incidents – yet only 19% felt “extremely prepared” to handle opioid misuse. Further, only 13% felt “very confident” that employees can recognize the signs of opioid misuse, and 76 percent don’t provide related training. (National Safety Council

Effect on Presenteeism, Absenteeism and Available Labor

The number of working-age people (generally ages 25 to 54) who are not working due to opioid dependency has grown each year since 1999.  Recent research shows that from 1999 to 2015, there were 4.1 million fewer people in the workforce because of opioid addiction. Nearly 1 million working-age people were absent from the workforce in 2015 due to opioid addiction. The loss of employees cost the U.S. economy $44 billion per year.

Data from the National Safety Council and the NORC research group at the University of Chicago found that pain medication use disorder accounts for 29 missed workdays  compared to 15 for other substance use disorders and 10 for the general workforce. Additionally, 42% of people who have a pain medication use disorder worked for more than one employer in the past year, compared to 25% of the general workforce. (NPR)

People with opioid use disorder who do come to work have problems with presenteeism and pose workplace safety concerns. Sedation and dizziness are two of the most common side effects of opioid use, which is dangerous in any workplace environment, but is especially dangerous for people working in safety-sensitive positions. (National Safety Council)

This short video sheds light on the stigma of opioid addiction with personal stories behind the statistics of the opioid epidemic.

Treating Opioid Use Disorder as a Chronic Condition  

Opioid tolerance, dependence and addiction all are manifestations of brain changes resulting from chronic opioid abuse. In essence, opioids rewire the brain and it happens very quickly, and the struggle to overcome addiction is due in great part to these changes. (NCBI) After opioid dependence, it can take the brain > 14 months to recover.

In combination with recovery programs and counseling, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which helps curb opioid cravings, is the most effective way to combat opioid addiction. However, just one-third of patients who need it use it. (National Institute on Drug Abuse)

An emphasis on recovery also can have a positive impact on suicide. More than 90% of people who fall victim to suicide suffer from depression and/or have a substance abuse disorder. Opioid use alone is associated with a 40-60% increased likelihood of suicidal thought.

Treating opioid use disorder as a chronic condition, rather than a moral shortcoming, is essential in helping people achieve a successful recovery from addiction and a healthy return to their families, their community and their workforce. Employers that provide access to comprehensive treatment and recovery programs that are focused on returning the employee back to their job can help alleviate the issues with presenteeism, absenteeism and shortage of workers.

How Express Scripts Can Help

Preventing opioid misuse, of course, is critical to helping our workforce address the issues it faces in this epidemic.  Limiting days’ supply for first-time patients, starting patients on safer, short-acting medications, and making proper disposal of unused, unwanted or expired medication easy all help prevent misuse and abuse. We’re doing just that with our nationally recognized Advanced Opioid Management®

In addition, our neuroscience specialist pharmacists are engaging with patients using an opioid to help them use the therapy safely, and to help them identify any behaviors that signal a possible addiction.  These pharmacists also are trained to look for potential signs of addiction when speaking with patients, and can help guide them toward treatment and recovery programs.

Learn more about how Express Scripts can assist in helping your workforce use opioids safely.  If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, visit the National Drug Helpline website.


Author Bio

Kelcey Blair
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