High at the Office: Four Things You Should Know about Workplace Opioid Abuse


If a close friend or family member became addicted to their opioid medication, changes in their behavior would likely tip you off that something was wrong. But what about another group of people you see every day: your employees? Although addiction in general is often portrayed in popular culture as impossible to hide, many people do hide their addiction successfully for years from all but their closest confidantes. As the number of people addicted to opioids in this country grows, here are four things you should know about opioid use in the workplace.


  1. It’s easy to get hooked. No one wants to believe that they or someone they know can or will become a person with substance use disorder. It’s true that many who begin taking prescription opioids like Vicoden or Oxycodone have no intention of misusing the drug or becoming addicted. Opioids are an exceptionally common prescription for pain management, despite their growing reputation for abuse. An addiction to prescription opioids can happen to anyone who sees a doctor to manage physical pain they’re feeling, even if they have no prior familial history of abuse.


  1. Employing addicts can get expensive. NPR reports that people abusing prescription opioids are inclined to take sick days more often and file more claims to utilize workers’ compensation benefits than their non-addicted colleagues. A study published in Oxford University’s journal Pain Medication estimated that employees’ opioid addictions cost employers $25 billion in 2007, almost half of all estimated societal costs incurred by opioid abuse. If one of your employees begins frequently showing up for work late or seems to take sporadic sick days, this may be a costly red flag for opioid addiction.


  1. You’re not getting your employee’s best work. Addiction can interfere with even a model employee’s ability to do his or her job effectively. Because of the way addiction alters the neural firing networks in a person with substance use disorder’s brain, their job performance may suffer. Just being in the office is not enough; excellent work requires a fullness of presence that a person with substance use disorder of any kind will find challenging to give.


  1. Employers are taking action. As workplaces all over the country see an increase in employees impacted by addiction to prescription opioids, human resources professionals continue to look for the best way to fight this epidemic. With few professions requiring random drug testing of their employees and even fewer testing for prescription opioids, some medical professionals are advocating for more inclusive drug testing techniques in the workplace. NPR reports that according to testing company Quest Diagnostics, prescription painkillers are only tested for in 13% of workplace drug tests. By comparison, in Indiana, the National Safety Council reported that four out of five employers have had to deal with opioid prescription addiction and abuse in their workplace. Even without an evidence-base to describe the most effective interventions employers can undertake to deter prescription drugs abuse in the workplace, it is clear that some effort must be made to respond to the epidemic of opioid abuse ripping across the country.


As an employer, it is in your company’s and employees’ best interest to help them find appropriate treatment. You have committed resources into finding, hiring, and training the best people you can. Protect your business by getting your substance abusing employees quality care and in return, you will likely build loyalty and a culture of commitment. By becoming familiar with the signs of a growing addiction, proactively testing or clarifying company policies around prescription drug use in the office, and keeping in mind that addiction can happen to anyone, you may be able to prevent your team from suffering the ill-effects of opioid addiction and when addiction does strike, find ways to address it that will be of benefit to all involved.