Opioid Addiction in the Workforce

American workforce
Photo by alvarez/iStockphoto.com

With roughly half of the U.S. population gainfully employed, the health, vitality, morale, and integrity of the American workforce are crucial elements that should be closely monitored and maintained.

Unfortunately, as the opioid crisis has swept across America, this addiction nightmare has now made its way into the workforce. What will it take for American workers and employers to create a safe, drug-free work environment?

Employers who maintain strong workforce policies, regular educational efforts among employees, health benefit programs, and well-trained managers are best equipped to create a healthy and safe work environment. But will that be enough to keep employees safe from the rapidly spreading opioid epidemic?

A Look at the Statistics

According to the National Safety Council, drug distribution of morphine was at 96 milligrams per person in the United States in 1997. By 2007, that number had leaped to 700 milligrams per person, a more than 600 percent increase. But did pain statistics go up by 600 percent to justify the need for the sharp increase in pharmaceutical pain relievers? Absolutely not. Today, the United States uses more opioid pain medication than any other country, despite only containing about five percent of the world population.

Opioid addiction is a severe threat to the workforce, particularly pertaining to legal, accepted, and normalized opioid painkillers (illicit opioids and heroin also pose a threat). 

Again according to the National Safety Council: Opioid painkillers pose a health and safety risk to the workforce. These medications are potent, addictive, and mind-altering. If an employee is misusing or self-medicating on opioid painkillers, they may be in a physically and mentally impaired state while at work. That will pose a risk to them and others around them.

  “Opioid painkillers pose a health and safety risk to the workforce. These medications are potent, addictive, and mind-altering. If an employee is misusing or self-medicating on opioid painkillers, they may be in a physically and mentally impaired state while at work. That will pose a risk to them and others around them.”  

Prescription painkillers have the potential to increase workers’ compensation costs, to increase the length of worker disability claims, and to increase lost work time dramatically. Opioid prescription abuse also significantly increases the use of emergency room services, hospitalizations, and other medical costs, much of which is often paid for by employer-issued health insurance.

The concept that addicts do not work is something of a myth. According to another NSC report, about 75 percent of adults with a substance abuse disorder are gainfully employed. And given that a SAMHSA report tells us that there are close to twenty million Americans who struggle with an addiction to drugs and alcohol, that means roughly 15 million Americans are currently working full-time jobs and struggling with addictions at the same time.

Also, according to the NSC, opioid overdoses account for about half of off-the-job deaths among America’s workforce. And not only is opioid addiction a severe threat to workers’ lives, but opioid addiction is a threat to the businesses themselves. Opioid addiction among workers harms an employer’s bottom line and the health and safety of other workers who have to perform tasks near or with an addicted worker. Furthermore, employers face employee replacement costs, training costs, lost production costs, and medical costs, just to name a few.

Conversely, employees in recovery from opioid addiction have equal or lower absenteeism, job turnover, and healthcare costs than employees who’ve never struggled with addiction before. That means when an employer invests time, energy, and resources in helping an employee get off of drugs, the employer is really investing in a loyal, hardworking, reliable employee who will be a great asset to the company.

What Can Employers and Co-Workers Do to Address the Problem?

Here are some tips on what employers and co-workers can do to help support employees who suffer from addiction:

  • Make it okay for the employee to talk about their addiction. Employees often feel that their job will be at risk if they communicate about their addiction to other co-workers or to their employer. While virtually all states observe at-will employment regulations, no business can actually fire an employee because of the employee’s addiction. Employers and co-workers should do everything they can to help addicted employees feel safe talking about their problems, all in the effort to get them help.
  • Provide resources for creating a healthy and safe workforce. Prevention is always preferred because it is far easier to prevent an addiction from ever occurring than it is to treat one. With that in mind, employers should institute health education within the workforce and use the workplace as a location to teach employees about drugs and alcohol. Furthermore, employers should go above and beyond to ensure that employees have everything they need to be happy, fulfilled, and competent within their positions, as workplace stress is one of the leading causes of substance abuse in the first place.
  • Seek help from resources on tackling addiction in the workforce. If you or other employees are at a loss for what to do to help a co-worker overcome their drug addiction, seek outside help! Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Safety Council offer helpful resources and information on tackling addiction in the workforce. If that does not lead to a resolution, consider enlisting the help of an interventionist.
  • Help the employee seek and attain treatment for their addiction. Perhaps most importantly, employers and co-workers should do everything they can to help an employee seek and enter treatment should that employee be found to have a legitimate substance abuse problem. It’s not just on the family members and loved ones of an addict to ensure they get help, co-workers and employers can help as well.

Addiction Treatment
—The Solution to Opioid Addiction

The spread of opioid addiction across America is being hailed by many as the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States. 

At this rate, opioid addiction will soon become as common within the workforce as alcohol addiction is, and alcohol addiction has plagued the workforce for decades. That’s why it’s so crucial that employers and employees work together now to prevent this problem from getting any worse. The key? Helping addicted employees get into a drug and alcohol rehab center.

If you have an employee or co-worker who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, please contact Narconon today. Doing so will be taking the first step to saving that person’s life and making the workplace safer in the process.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.