Employee talking with counselor.

The Role Employers Play in Stemming the Opioid Epidemic

The human costs of the opioid epidemic are substantial, and they trickle down to employers in the form of absenteeism and compromised performance on the job. A recent study found that opioid abuse costs U.S. employers $18 billion annually in lost productivity.

Ron Scott is an employee assistance program consultant with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. Scott recently provided an action plan for employers to use as they grapple with how to handle the opioid epidemic and other forms of substance abuse in the workplace during a Health Forum of West Michigan panel discussion about opioids. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan sponsored the event.

Scott said there are five key steps employers need to take to ensure they are doing everything within their power to help their employees struggling with substance use disorders.

  1. Evaluate company policies around drug testing. Employers need to make sure their policies are clear and understood by employees, with written acknowledgement obtained. A good policy will define employees’ role in making the workplace safe and the steps that will be taken if substance abuse is suspected, including when and why drug testing will take place and what happens in the event of a positive result.
  2. Create a Mandatory Referral Program (MRP). Scott said having an MRP in place helps the employer and employee in the event that a drug test comes back positive. The employer would be able to meet with the employee to review the policy violation and refer the employee to an Employee Assistance Program to determine next steps which could include rehabilitation treatment or other corrective measures.
  3. Create a plan to address an employee’s positive drug test. While some employers might turn to immediate termination in the event of a positive test, Scott said there are other options that can be more humane and build loyalty. “That’s where employers have choices,” he said.
  4. Consider wellness programs to help. The reality of substance abuse is that the substances work to relieve pain and stress, Scott said. Finding alternative ways to deal with problems can be one way employers can help workers deal with stress in their lives before they turn to substances. Wellness programs can be set up in a variety of ways and Scott said they do make a difference. “Try to come alongside employees with where they’re at in life,’ he said.
  1. Educate and train employees. Ultimately, employers need to provide a safe place for all employees. Help everyone understand the signs of substance abuse and provide a way for people to report it in a way that’s respectful of everyone involved. Scott said that while some employees might feel like you’re trying to catch them in unwanted behavior, by having an effective substance use policy in place, you’re creating a safe work environment.

If you’re a Blue Cross customer or member, take advantage of our Blue Cross® Virtual Well-Being program, which offers helpful weekly webinars for employers and members on a variety of well-being topics.

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Photo credit: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

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