Addressing the Implications of Opioid Addiction in the Workplace

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A tight labor market is becoming even tighter because of a startling issue: opioid addiction. More and more employers are struggling to find workers who can pass their required drug tests, as CNBC notes. In some cases that means that even top candidates are having to be relegated to the "discard" pile in favor of less-qualified employees who are drug-free — or no employees at all.

Employers are also finding themselves faced with the very real issue of existing employees becoming addicted to their prescription medications.

Recognizing the Signs of a Growing Issue

David Campbell, senior vice president of quality management at ComPsych, an EAP provider, says organizations of all sizes, in all industries are being affected by this epidemic but particularly those with a predominantly male population. Campbell says that he's seen health claims for those seeking treatment for opioid dependence increase by 31 percent between 2014 and 2017. "Today, they account for 67 percent of all our substance-use cases," he says. "During the same three-year period, opioid costs for treatment saw a 35 percent increase. They now make up 73 percent of the total substance-use treatment costs."

EAPs can help organizations that have access to these resources. Tim Thoelecke, founder of InOut Labs Training, a drug testing organization, also suggests supervisor training for reasonable suspicion — an important best practice. "Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms is a first step," he says. "Understanding what to do then is the next."

Best Practices

The challenges of dealing with the impacts of opioid use and addiction in the workplace is growing. Fortunately, there are some best practices to help HR leaders address these issues compassionately and appropriately.

Charles Krugel, a labor and employment lawyer and HR counselor based in Chicago, points to three key best practices for effectively responding to the workplace impacts of the opioid epidemic:

  • Create concise policies and procedures
  • Don't be too judgmental
  • Gather information before taking action

Krugel says the threshold question for any organization is to what extent the opioid epidemic is impacting their workplace. If it's representing a problem, the need for policies and procedures is clear. Even if the problem doesn't currently exist, it's not a bad idea to take some proactive steps.

Policy Considerations

There are some important policy considerations that organizations will want to keep in mind when addressing opioid issues. Communication and education are critical to ensure understanding and awareness to issues that may arise.

Beth Zoller, a legal editor and attorney, recommends that employers be proactive in terms of addressing the opioid crisis and potential implications for their workplace by ensuring that appropriate policies are in place. These policies can include:

  • Drug-free workplace
  • Regular drug testing
  • Disciplinary outcomes
  • Safe driving regulations
  • Leave of absence procedures

It's important to consult with legal counsel in the process of drafting these documents and to ensure that local as well as federal requirements are considered and incorporated.

The Dos and Don'ts

As prescription drug abuse is on a rise, employers and their HR advisers need to understand some important dos and don'ts for addressing these issues proactively. Zoller recommends that employers do the following:

  • Educate employees about the dangers of addiction and the harm of abusing illegal drugs and prescription medications
  • Be on the lookout for warning signs of addiction (mood swings, changes in energy level, tardiness, missed days, napping at workstations or in cars and signs of withdrawal)
  • Be extra vigilant if employees work in safety-sensitive positions or with heavy or dangerous machinery
  • Ensure any information obtained is confidential and protected
  • Make sure employees take the appropriate time off for medical reasons for surgeries
  • Integrate employees returning from medical leave back into the workplace in a positive manner

It is essential to get legal advice to understand the laws that apply to your organization and employees (wherever they are), especially if you are considering drug testing employees. Many different laws can apply, including ADA, FMLA and state privacy laws. If you do perform drug tests, don't jump to conclusions if an employee or applicant tests positive for prescription medications; there could be a valid medical reason.

Also, don't immediately take adverse action or question the employee if they appear to be under the influence of medication; this may lead to an ADA violation.

If you don't think opioid addiction has an impact on your workforce, think again. The growing crisis is affecting nearly 70 percent of workplaces in America, according to the National Safety Council. Make sure your organization is proactively taking steps to address this growing epidemic.

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