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News & Press: FOCUS

The Opioid Crisis is a Workplace Issue

Monday, July 1, 2019  
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More than 130 people in the United States die each day after overdosing on opioids, including prescription pain relievers, heroin and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. Sadly, many of these occur at work, costing businesses an estimated $750 billion a year in related healthcare, crime and lost productivity, not to mention emotional distress. Employers can play an important role in the social and economic welfare of their employees, but where do we start?

First, it is important to understand how we currently define the growing problem. Opioid addiction is a substance use disorder, which means individuals are abusing and dependent upon these drugs, many cases of which start innocently enough – upwards of 29 percent of abuse is related to an initial prescription for chronic pain, which then develops into dependency.

Further, addiction is also frequently associated with other mental health and physical health problems. Overdose emergencies may occur at work and while not emergencies, abuse and dependence contribute to failure to perform work, tardiness and absence. When at work, there may be increased interpersonal problems, which disrupt the work environment. But, perhaps, the real cost is how the lives of employees, colleagues, friends and loved ones are affected by opioid abuse at work, at home and in the community.

So, what we can do as business leaders to help? Perhaps the place to start is how we think of opioid addiction and learning that addiction is an illness that is preventable and treatable. We need to shed labels and, instead, help identify employees with potential problems and find ways to assist in preventing opioid abuse, and to provide treatment resources and support for those in recovery.

We should be prepared for emergencies and offer first responder workplace training. Also, we should be prepared to reverse the effects of an overdose through the use of naloxone, a medication that blocks the effects of opioids. Planning for the use of use of naloxone should include training for employees and plans for safe use, secure storage and disposal, if kept in the workplace.

Approaches to treatment are the use of medications to reduce craving which is best when combined with individual and/or group therapy and counseling. Since addiction often occurs with mental and physical health problems, it is important to assess the need for medical, psychiatric, psychological and social services.

Finally, opioid addiction and the opioid crisis in the workplace is a complex issue. Identification, assessment and treatment are complex processes, however, there are resources available to the employer for addressing this issue. Through their employer resources, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan provides a toolkit to address the opioid problem.

It is up to us as business leaders to ensure the safety of our employees. There is a plan we can follow if we only take the time to listen and take action.

Randolph F.R. Rasch, PhD, RN, FAANP, is the Dean of the College of Nursing Michigan State University.

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