Workplace Drug Use

Employers Advised to Be More Proactive on Rx Drugs

The widespread epidemic of opioid abuse is affecting employers in ways that go beyond the scope of workers' comp prescription costs.
By: | February 29, 2016

Employers are increasingly seeing negative effects from the use of prescription drugs, especially opioids, according to a new survey. While many are using tools to stem the tide, the strategies may be insufficient to really address the problem.

The National Safety Council says employers can be especially influential in the fight against opioid abuse in their workforces. The council has released findings from a survey of more than 200 Indiana-based organizations illustrating the concerns and challenges facing employers and the steps they are taking.

“What we learned was that almost 80 percent of companies reported being impacted by prescription drug use or abuse,” said Tess Benham, senior program manager at the NSC. “They noted a wide range of issues.”

Many cited increases in near-misses related to prescription drugs; almost 1 in 4 respondents reported incidents of workers borrowing or selling drugs at work; 41 percent saw an increase in positive drug tests; and more than 40 percent reported an increase in absenteeism or missed work while 35 percent reported a drop in productivity.

“Almost 80 percent of companies reported being impacted by prescription drug use or abuse.” —Tess Benham, senior program manager, National Safety Council.

While the majority of respondents say prescription drugs are impacting their companies, few named it as one of their overriding day-to-day concerns. “It’s having a huge impact on their workforces,” Benham said during a recent webinar on Prescription Drug Abuse in the Workplace: Prevention Strategies and Solutions. “But there is a real disconnect in terms of how companies deal with this.”

For example, while most have written workplace drug policies, few of them address prescription drug abuse. Additionally, 87 percent of companies report they conduct drug testing — preemployment, when there is reasonable suspicion, or randomly — but only 52 percent include the most commonly used opioids in their tests; and the majority of employers want employees who abuse drugs to get help but they are unable to identify them.

The speakers said with effective training and education employers can play a major role in helping workers with substance abuse problems. “Employer-initiated treatment has better long term outcomes than treatment initiated by the criminal justice system or family members,” Benham said. “Employers have a big role to play to get them help.”

Employers seeking to develop an effective substance abuse program are advised to take the following steps:

    • Forming the team. Members of the company’s legal, labor relations, and HR departments must be included. Organizations may also want to include other people within and outside the company such as those involved in health care, law enforcement, and the community.
    • Identifying available resources is also important. “Where do you have funds,” said Denise Fields, senior clinical consultant for Express Scripts. “In our study, could we get approval to pay for an hour of non-productive time for employees for training? Are there clinical experts or community leaders who can help put the plan together?”
    • Developing policies and procedures is key. These may include documents on drug testing, disciplinary action, medication security for a worker who needs to take a certain medication while at work, and education and training. “One note of caution is, don’t write a policy you cannot enforce,” Fields said.
    • Engaging employees in awareness and education is another critical element. This can begin with general awareness education about the magnitude of the prescription drug problem. “Some may not know how much of a problem it is,” Fields noted.

Training presentations should be interactive and include audience poling questions and/or games and competition, Fields advised. They should be relatable and include real-life examples. Also, the presenter should be non-judgmental. “That’s one of the most important things,” Fields said. “Anyone with addiction problems already has enough shame.”

Training should include discussions on the signs and symptoms of potential prescription drug abuse. “Few companies do training around this issue,” Benham said. “In light of the prescription drug problem, I think employers have a very proactive role they can take in terms of increased awareness around this issue and increasing their ability to intervene.”

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected].

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