Opioids in the Workplace: Employers Key in Combating Epidemic

Julie Bitely

| 3 min read

Image of an open office space with workers spread out in front of their laptops.
If you own a business, opioids are your problem. That was the key takeaway from a 2018 Mackinac Policy Conference panel discussing opioids in the workplace and their impact on Michigan businesses. For employers, the cost of treating opioid addiction and overdose has increased from $300 million 12 years ago to $2.6 billion in 2016, a nine-fold increase, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Two-thirds of people misusing opioids are employees, which can lead to decreased productivity and in some cases, an unsafe worksite.

“It’s us. It’s inside these walls. It’s our employees.”

Bud Denker used to think opioids were someone else’s problem. As president of Penske Corporation, a transportation services company headquartered in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., he didn’t think much about the epidemic. But he was shocked to discover that one of his workers had been prescribed 8,000 opioid pills in one year – that’s about 20 per day, well over any prescription regimen for pain. Using de-identified data from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Penske’s health insurer, Denker was able to clearly see abuse happening and is now focused on finding solutions to help his employees. Although privacy laws mean employers can’t see exactly who is struggling with a substance use disorder, data from insurers can be used to identify trends and doctors who are over-prescribing. “We want to help in any way we can,” said Dan Loepp, president and CEO, BCBSM. Even if you’re not a Blue Cross customer, Loepp said you can work with your insurer to identify trends in your workforce. He explained that data is powerful and can help companies and their employees. Insuring more than one in two Michiganders, Blue Cross has instituted a number of initiatives to combat the opioid epidemic including an online toolkit for employers and a cap on the number of pills that can be prescribed to first-time users. Read Loepp’s comprehensive outline of BCBSM’s overall opioid strategy. With intense focus on the issue, Blue Cross has seen a 24 percent reduction in the number of opioid pills dispensed. “We’re making progress, but there’s a lot to do,” Loepp said.

Steps employers can take

Panelists agreed that it’s more than likely one of your employees or their family members is struggling with addiction. It’s important that they have a safe way to disclose that to their employer, said Jenny Love, health management director, southeast region, Gallaher Benefit Services. She recommends that companies train managers and others within the organization to recognize the signs of addiction. They should also be equipped with the skills to engage in a compassionate conversation with employees who do come forward. Love said putting a step-by-step plan that employees can follow builds trust, especially when treatment options are the outcome and not punishment. Additionally, a focus on building resiliency in employees can help them navigate everyday life stressors so they’re less likely to self-medicate. At Penske, employees who come forward asking for help are offered confidential support and resources, Denker said. He urges others in the business community to do their part. “Provide those employees a path forward before it’s too late,” Denker said. Focusing on awareness of and de-stigmatizing opioid use disorder as part of your company culture is key to sparking real change, panelists agreed. “This is a problem that knows no demographics,” said Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney, Eastern District of Michigan. “It’s us. It’s our family.” If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
Photo credit: wetwebwork
MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association