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The Opioid Crisis in the Workplace

What businesses can do to prevent and identify opioid use in the workplace


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It’s clear opioid overdoses are destroying lives, devastating communities and wreaking havoc in the workplace. One survey showed that 70-percent of employers have been affected by problems related to prescription drug use, including absenteeism, impaired performance and workplace injury.

In my practice as a Kaiser Permanente physician, I know first-hand how opioid abuse and misuse can dismantle someone’s personal and professional life — and hurt your business.

While our society and the health care industry are making positive strides — including reducing the number of prescriptions written and offering alternative means for pain management — more can and must be done. And for business owners in Colorado, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are three steps you can take toward addressing opioid abuse or misuse in your workplace:

Promote a Culture of Health

Denver has seen an influx of start-ups, tech accelerators, and new businesses in recent years. A lot of attention is put on the companies’ workplace culture that includes casual dress codes, trendy offices with on-site kegerators and a collaborative workspace with no cubicles. But what’s sometimes missing from a truly great work culture is a focus on employees’ health. All employees can benefit from workplaces that focus on health and wellness. A strong wellness program gives employers a platform for addressing opioid misuse and substance abuse, among other topics.

Building that kind of health-centered culture starts with developing policies that enhance wellness, promote self-care and even support long-term recovery to reduce the stigma surrounding substance abuse. These policies help build your workplace culture and can even be incorporated into the hiring, discipline, retention and termination of employees.

You may also consider promoting the use of sick days for wellness. Encourage your employees to use sick days for medical, dental, mental and/or chemical health. Taking a mental health day allows your employees to unplug from the day-to-day stress of the barrage of emails and constant stream of phone calls.

When hosting social events or gatherings, ensure there are alcohol- and drug-free events. Try scheduling an after-hours volunteering event at a local nonprofit. This kind of activity allows your employees to connect outside the workplace while contributing to their community. This kind of after-hours event can also help someone struggling with opioid or substance addiction as it provides them with a distraction.  

Educate Employees, Train Managers

This may seem obvious like a no-brainer, but a recent survey found a startling 76-percent of employers are not offering training on how to identify signs of prescription drug misuse.

You can make simple adjustments, like providing a lunch seminar, to help educate your employees about prescription drug abuse and how it impacts their lives and performance in the workplace. Whatever forum you choose for educating your employees, continually encourage them to seek help through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other sources.

Your managers and leaders need to know your company’s written policy and you can help train them how to recognize suspected signs of drug use or impairment. There are several free resources available to help you train your staff appropriately. These resources help teach you and your managers how to communicate with employees as well as how to document workplace prescription drug use or abuse.

Find the Right Health Care Partner

Businesses are spending more on health care than ever before. Finding the right health care partner is imperative to ensuring you’re providing your staff with the right tools to treat and talk about prescription drug abuse and misuse.

This partner should have access to a wealth of clinical data that can help provide the right treatments for your employees. Look for a health care partner that limits opioid prescriptions; provides effective, patient-centered, nonopioid pain management alternatives; prescribes lower doses and shorter courses when opioids are medically necessary; and helps patients who take opioid medications taper down to safer, lower doses — or discontinue use altogether. This information is usually readily available when discussing your wants and needs with a potential health care partner.

You know well the importance of employee health as a business strategy. It’s more than a line item in your list of benefits. It’s a commitment to the people you depend on every day — and a key factor in the overall health of your business. These three steps —fostering a culture of health, educating your workforce about the dangers of opioid misuse, and finding a good health care partner — are a few simple ways you can help your employees be their best at and away from work, translating into a stable return on investment for your business.

Dr. Michael Evers, DO, is a physician pain specialist with the Colorado Permanente Medical Group which serves the more than 650,000 members of Kaiser Permanente Colorado.

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