Above all else, the opioid crisis is insidious. It slips into communities, stealing away lives and livelihoods alike as it quietly grows. The tragedy addiction causes tends to overshadow its secondary impacts on business and community during conversations about the opioid crisis, and for good reason. The risk to an individual’s health and life is evident and painful; for an addict, the slow slide into dependency can also spell the end of meaningful relationships, poke holes in financial security, and ruin any chances of employment. The danger to individuals is primary; however, the crisis’ secondary damages to the businesses that form the backbone of local economies can’t be brushed off. Many organizations have found their employee pools tainted or outright drained by addiction, leaving employers desperate to preserve business health amidst the steady encroachment of the opioid crisis.
The business cost of the epidemic’s slow siege on the workforce is already becoming clear. According to a recent survey from the National Safety Council, a full 39% of employers have encountered absenteeism problems as the result of employees using prescriptions drugs; 29% have seen impaired or lessened job performance, 22% report lower employee morale, and 15% have reported a near miss or injury due to an impaired employee. Perhaps most shockingly, one in ten of the surveyed businesses have needed to respond to an overdose at work.
With those statistics in mind, the potential damage opioid-impaired workers could cause to themselves or others at work is frankly frightening to consider. In the distribution industry alone, employees are responsible for operating heavy machinery, manning critical communications, and driving trucks. At best, they will lessen productivity and provide sub-par work; at worst, they run the real risk of causing bodily harm or death.
Moreover, addiction exacts a cost on businesses even when employers manage to sidestep at-work disasters. One 2016 study from Castlight Health estimated that opioid use disorder demands roughly $18 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses every year. The report also found that employees who struggle with addiction tend to cost employers twice as much in medical expenses compared to those who don’t have a substance abuse problem.
However, it seems unrealistic to hope that businesses could steer clear of the opioid crisis by conducting regular drug tests and writing off turnover costs as a loss. Too many in the workforce are impacted; in 2016, over 63,600 lost their lives to the drug epidemic. In 2017, analysts for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that 2.1 million people suffered from a categorizable opioid use disorder, while 11.3 million misused prescription opioids. America’s drug problem is severe, and it will in all likelihood worsen: according to some projections, the death toll over the next decade could top 650,000. Businesses might be thriving — but if the communities where they want to set down new roots are withering under addiction’s hold, how can they hope to grow? The economic opportunity for new jobs and expansion is all well and good, but it won’t do much good if prospective or current employees can’t pass a drug test.
Employers can’t afford to sit on the sidelines; they need to work to counteract the addiction issue. One way to accomplish this would be to invest more in addiction treatment benefits for workers. Today, receptor-blocking medications such as buprenorphine and naloxone can be used in conjunction with counseling and behavioral therapies to dampen the “buzz” drug users receive and help workers reclaim ownership over their daily lives. Given that addiction is often a lifelong struggle, these medications wouldn’t stand as a cure; however, they would ensure that workers have a fighting chance to remain employed and in pursuit of recovery.
In the tragedy and panic of the opioid crisis, it can feel necessary to focus on the immediate human cost and pick up the economic pieces later. However, I would argue that any real solution to the crisis needs to address the hiring and retention challenge. After all, resolving the epidemic isn’t just a matter of guiding people to back to wellness, but also on of ensuring that they can find self-sufficiency, employment, and financial security once they return. Those of us in the private sector need to address our employees’ recovery needs and present options for treatment; otherwise, our businesses might become yet another symptom of the opioid crisis.