A perfect storm of circumstances took place more than 20 years ago, and the result has been a dramatic increase in opioid use in the United States. Pain became measured as a vital sign for patients in hospital settings, Pharmaceutical advertising was deregulated, and Pharmaceutical companies began pushing pain medication with doctors, assuring them it wasn’t an addiction risk. 

Opioid use skyrocketed and by 2012 doctors knew they had to pull back. Between 2016 and 2016 opioid prescriptions fell by 20%, but by then the damage was done. People who had become addicted to their prescription opioid pain medications had moved on to illegal street drugs including heroin, and overdose deaths began to skyrocket, as well. 

By 2016 to 2017, an estimated 12 million Americans misused prescription opioid pain medications, a major risk factor for heroin use and other drug abuse. The epidemic is affecting everyone, including employers, but currently little is being done about it. Can employers help fight the opioid epidemic in the workplace?

A shocking 31% of American workplaces have already experienced an arrest, overdose, or injury as a result of opioids, and it’s coming from employees, customers, and the general public. It’s not unheard of to be sitting at your desk at work and someone overdosing on heroin drives a car through your wall.

Workplace drug testing is something that can help, but only a small amount. When someone has a legitimate prescription for opioids, it won’t show up on a drug test because of patient privacy laws. But there are other ways that workplaces can fight back.

Imagine you go in for routine surgery and you are sent home with a prescription for opioid pain medications to help with your recovery. Your recovery goes well and your pain is tolerable, but then you realize you are addicted to the medication. What do you do? 

You can’t really take more time off after just being off for surgery or you’ll lose your job, and if you tell anyone you are struggling you also run the risk of losing your job. So you continue to take the pain medication long after you really need it, and eventually you have to buy it on the streets or graduate to heroin. It’s a more common story than many people realize.

Outlining in HR materials a path to recovery and back into the workplace for people suffering from addiction makes it more likely that people will get the help they need. People need support to go through recovery, but 64% of HR professionals aren’t trained on how to help them. 

But 71% of people think that addiction should be treated as a medical condition, and treating it with kindness and empathy is the best way to prevent it from going too far. Giving people support to get back into the workplace after rehab is also critical.

Supporting people through tough times includes helping them through recovery and back into the workplace through mentoring and other forms of support. What sort of HR policy does your company have to address addiction in the workplace?