The Opioid Epidemic: What Employers Need to Know

February 23, 2018

Written by AllOne Health’s Director of Operations New England Region, Will Brown, LICSW, M.Ed., CEAP

White signs with the number 2069 displayed in black lettering dot lawns and properties throughout Massachusetts reminding bypassers that in 2016, in Massachusetts alone, 2,069 people died as a direct result of opioid abuse and addiction. The signs serve to raise our awareness to the ubiquitous nature of the epidemic.

The use of substances have held a place in American history dating back to the 17th century: our current social context is a variation of the theme of our country’s long relationship with drugs and chemical dependence. The purpose of this article is to review the realities we face and what employers need to know so that they can make a difference.

In 2016, more than 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses related to prescriptions, heroin and fentanyl.  This translates to 115 deaths per day or close to 5 an hour.  Families, churches, and the workplace are increasingly feeling devastation and loss.

In the past decade, according to the CDC, prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctor’s offices have quadrupled; drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone.  In 2014, almost 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids.  And every day, over 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids.

With 8-12 percent of opioid users developing an opioid use disorder, the person sitting next to you at work could be one of these statistics. This trend is expensive in the form of disability claims and lowered productivity.  According to the publication, Talent Economy, medical costs for opioid abusers are almost twice that of non-abusers.

It’s important that employers understand a few basics about substance use and dependence.  The field of Addiction Medicine has been advocating changing terms from the stigmatizing and judgmental language of alcoholics, addicts, etc. and instead referring to a person with a substance use issue or a person suffering from substance dependence.  Substance dependence is marked by cravings and a compulsion to use despite adverse consequences.  It is also important to highlight and educate that substance dependence is a disease on par with any other medical condition; until we begin to embrace this concept, old thinking about how the afflicted lack will power will persist.  Those who have diseases like diabetes or cancer are not thought of to lack will power; the same applies to people suffering from substance dependence.

A key partner for employers to help bend the trend is utilizing the expertise and resources of Employee Assistance Programs.  There are several ways in which EAPs can assist.

Education and Training – EAP’s are in an excellent position to draw from their professional background and experience to provide multiple channels for information and awareness about addiction, whether it is a flyer to address signs and symptoms of substance misuse or dependence or presenting a seminar on the Opioid Epidemic.  We recently presented a basic overview to a packed room about this topic.  It was well received and we look forward to continuing this awareness campaign.  A flyer with facts about Opioids was presented to all attendees.

Another type of training for a hospital client stemmed from the problem of a nurse who was terminated as result of diverting opiates; HR requested that we train staff to recognize signs and symptoms of opiate misuse and/or dependence.  While several employees expressed mixed emotions, the majority of staff understood the importance of saying something when you see something.  Those with reservations questioned the role and/or burden that was being asked of them by the hospital.  I facilitated the discussion and encouraged senior leadership to provide guidance.  The result was a better informed staff about their role to protect the safety of patients and staff.

Another hospital client asked that we come on-site to counsel a nurse who was being terminated for diverting drugs.  The EAP Counselor engaged this person to help them look at how to recover from their substance dependence.

EAP’s are in the role of assessing and treating any mental health and/or substance abuse presenting issue.  When we are contacted by an employee or their loved ones, we determine what level of care is clinically indicated and make recommendations.  If the person is in need of a detox, we help the employee navigate their health insurance (if they have one) and find a facility that can provide care.

Additionally, supervisors serve as key liaisons to help employees get the support they need.  Through an informal or formal referral process to the EAP, we engage employees in accessing care.  This core EAP strategy along with the other interventions illustrate the powerful role that EAP’s play to improving the well-being of employees and organizations at large.