How the opioid crisis could affect your workplace

The first time you saw “Bill” appear to nod off during a staff meeting, you pulled him aside after the meeting. When you asked if he was OK, he said he was. You gave him the benefit of the doubt because he’d worked for you for three years and been a good employee. You knew he’d recently gone through a divorce and thought maybe he’d had a hard time sleeping due to personal problems.

Then Bill blew up at a customer. When you brought him in a second time, he told you he’d been trying to get off the prescription painkillers he’d been using for back pain.

Welcome to the opioid epidemic; it just found its way into your workplace.

Sometimes, otherwise good employees — when prescribed opioids or other prescription painkillers to relieve pain following an injury — can start down a path to opioid dependency. Managers and co-workers notice the effects — drowsiness, problematic attendance, depression, concentration problems, anxiety and mood swings — once dependency sets in. Employees struggling with opioid dependency may pose a safety risk to themselves or others because they don’t react as quickly or well. They may embezzle because they need the money for drugs.

Here’s what employers need to know and do.

Your turn could be next

Even if the problem hasn’t yet hit you, it still may. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2014, nearly 2 million Americans abuse prescription opioids.

Even your best managers and employees are at risk

“The more professional stature you have, the less likely you are going to be forced into recovery, and the longer your addiction is likely to go on unchecked,” Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Patrick Krill told NPR.

In her book “Ruby Shoes,” corporate sales professional Michele Zumwalt details her own story of addiction. Zumwalt received a shot of the opioid Demerol for her headaches, and soon learned she’d get headaches if she didn’t get her shot. Zumwalt says her addiction went unnoticed. “I could show up at Xerox and put on a presentation, and I was high on Percodan.  …I mean, fully out of it. I don’t know how many I had taken, but so many that I don’t remember the presentation. And do you know that people didn’t know?”

Head off problems before they begin

Prescription drug abuse sneaks up on those who ordinarily would never think of abusing drugs. After all, doctors prescribe painkillers to soften the edges of post-surgery or injury pain, and to those battling chronic pain who seek to avoid surgical intervention.

Some employees use as few painkillers as possible. Others, battling more pain, or at-home boredom, take more than necessary. Provide your employees suffering from workplace-related or other injuries with education and counseling so they know the risks they face if they let themselves become used to opioids. For many, it’s an easy slide from using legally prescribed and necessary painkillers to inappropriately abusing opioids.

Educate your managers and supervisors

Managers and supervisors need to understand the potential signals of opioid abuse and learn what to say if they have concerns. While managers and supervisors can’t be expected to informally diagnose a problem, they need to know how to refer the employee to alcohol and drug testing. A sample statement might be, “Because of what I am observing right now, I am concerned about you. Based on my observation, we need a professional to evaluate the situation.”

Drug testing

Keep your workplace safe. If you suspect an employee has a problem, you can arrange for testing. Despite our country’s opioid epidemic, according to the testing firm Quest Diagnostics, only 13 percent of the roughly 6.5 million workplace drug tests include screening for prescription painkillers.

Create a solid workplace drug policy

To be able to fairly and effectively handle problems, your workplace needs a guiding policy more detailed than “please don’t use drugs or alcohol at work.” Your policy needs to outline the circumstances under which a manger might have “reasonable suspicion” concerning an employee’s potential drug abuse and the procedures to follow to have the employee tested.

If your company’s drug testing policy predates December 2016, it may contradict Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements. Effective December 2016, OSHA’s new rule requires employers to drug test after a workplace accident only when the employer has a reasonable basis to believe that the incident was likely to have been caused by the employee’s impairment and the employer believes that the drug test may determine whether the employee was impaired at the time of the incident. “This doesn’t preclude,” notes former attorney turned HR consultant Richard Birdsall, “an employer’s ability to test any employee involved in a workplace accident.”

Finally, because an employee’s drug use or abuse may overlap into legal areas such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and HIPAA, consult your attorney when handling any particularly thorny problem.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting for The Growth Company, an Avitus Group Company. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at

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