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3 Ways Employers Can Address Substance Use Disorders (SUD) in the Workplace

Discover How to Create an Effective, Comprehensive Drug-Free Workplace Policy

Companies and organizations of all sizes have an important role in promoting the health and safety of employees and managing risks in the workplace. Employers who have strong workplace policies, education, health benefit programs and well-trained managers create safe and healthy environments in which both employees and business thrive, but the research is clear. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports a 300% increase in opioid prescription sales since 1999 without an overall change in reported pain and cites that almost 218,000 Americans died from overdoses related to Rx opioids from 1999 to 2017.

The United States is awash in prescription pain medication, mostly opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. In many cases, there is a legitimate need for these drugs to treat both acute and chronic pain. However, at the same time, there were more than 257 million prescriptions written for opioids in 2012, enough for every American adult to have his or her own bottle. As the numbers of prescriptions have increased, so too has the rate of opioid addiction.

Many employers may think that this “epidemic” is unavoidable and out of their hands, however contrary to popular belief, there are actionable steps that employers can take to encourage a healthy and safe workplace for employees.

      1. The Shift from Addiction to Substance Use Disorder

        Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) and other addictions like gambling are chronic medical conditions; however, the general public often associates individuals with addiction/SUDs with poor choices and moral failings. As a result, many people who suffer from addiction are not treated the same way as people with a chronic physical health condition. Substance use disorders carry a high burden of stigma and fear of judgment means that people with substance use disorders are less likely to seek help, and more likely to drop out of treatment programs if they enroll.

        As employers, we have the power to teach employees the importance of stigma-free language and perceptions. Take hard-to-treat cancers as an example. As a society, we believe that people had little to no control over it and that a person acquired the illness through no fault of their own. On the contrary, people perceive mental health conditions, including SUD to be in a person’s control and thus attach a stigma to it. Employers need to set an example with the language they use when talking about this topic in the workplace. For instance, instead of saying someone is “recovering” say “thriving” or something more positive that won’t make them feel like an addict. The use of stigma-free language will make for a positive work environment and outcomes that are more favorable.

      2. Identifying the Signs and Knowing how to Approach Distress or Addiction

        Your employees could be struggling with an emerging dependence, or addiction, to these medications— a problem they never intended to have. In fact, the opioid crisis has had an unprecedented effect on the American economy, influencing the overall health and productivity of millions. While Substance Use Disorder does not have one size fits all characteristics, there are key signs to look for as well as ways to encourage a conversation with your employees to minimize the impact this health emergency can have on your company.  There is a lot an employer can do to encourage a culture that fosters a healthy workplace, and it starts with education.

      3. Protection and Detection

        There are strategies employers can put in place that will address the need for these medications within the overall employee benefits and pharmacy strategy. The National Safety Council HR/Benefits survey indicates 70% of employers have been impacted by prescription drug costs, but 81% don’t have a comprehensive drug-free workplace policy in place. Decisions on how to incorporate preventative measures in the workplace should start at the strategy table and ahead of designing an employee benefits plan. Some preventative measures could include:

      • Increased awareness for alternatives such as physical therapy and acupuncture to treat pain
      • Medications for addiction management
      • Storage and disposal offerings
      • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
      • Recovery Support Services (RSSs)

      There is an evident need to expand and clarify the treatment options for those affected with substance use disorder. The Surgeon General reports that only about 1 in 10 people with a substance use disorder receive any special treatment. A slow shift is occurring concerning the delivery of early intervention and treatment services into general healthcare practice.

      Individuals struggling with addiction to opioids or other substances are among the highest-cost drivers of employee benefits, yet most of these individuals do not receive treatment needed for successful outcomes. When employers become aware of how they are or aren’t addressing substance use in the workplace, they can take a more proactive approach to decrease the chances that their business and employees will suffer through this unfortunate issue.

      Listen to this podcast for a deeper dive on how you can address substance abuse in the workplace.


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