There’s no denying the sad truth: Abuse of opioids has become a nationwide problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths from opioid overdose have quadrupled since 1999. And while many people instantly equate this category of substance abuse with illegal drugs such as heroin, at least half of opioid-related deaths involve prescription medication abuse, the CDC notes.

As this problem continues to grow, your team members are increasingly likely to feel the impact of this epidemic, whether directly or indirectly. Although you can’t ask your employees about drug abuse, you can create an environment where they feel empowered to ask for help if they need it, and at the very least, you can build valuable awareness of the issue.

Educate Your Team

Don’t hesitate to distribute materials about treating opioid abuse. Through your company’s email, intranet or other communication systems, you can post helpful, third-party articles about these drugs and their effects. Unbiased, educational resources will help your team understand the complexity of the opioid abuse problem in the U.S. Don’t target these communications to specific employees — simply cast a wide net to help shine a light on the problem.

Know the Options

Research the existing programs that are available in your current health care plan. These might include drug abuse programs, chronic pain specialists, behavioral health professionals and alternative medicine treatments — all resources that might provide a solution for employees or their family members.

Your current health plan may have more options in place than you think. Call your provider, and arrange a private meeting to go over the options that currently exist so you can remind your team that they’re available.

Begin the company-wide conversation by highlighting some of the other, lesser-known benefits your plan provides, such as health screenings and gym memberships — you don’t have to start with the topic of using opioids. You might find that everyone can benefit from a conversation about those little-known health benefits. And as the employer, you’ll find that healthier employees create a more motivated, productive workforce.

Be Compassionate

If you suspect that someone in your company is abusing opioids or has a family member struggling with this issue, ask a human resources professional, if you have one at your company, to sit with you while you have a private conversation with the employee. Remember, by law, you can’t ask about drug use, and fear and shame won’t encourage the employee to seek help. What you can do is give any employee a safe place to discuss health benefits with the HR professional.

If you don’t have an HR team, you can work with a qualified third party. If the problem is serious and begins to impact the employee’s workplace performance, you will eventually have to document these problems and behaviors. Having a compassionate conversation is always better than an abrupt termination, especially before you’ve explored all the options.

Meaningful Steps for Employers

The National Business Group on Health offers eight specific suggestions that business leaders can take to face this growing epidemic:

  1. Look at your company’s claims data to identify opioid-related treatments. Your pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) and health insurance plan provider can give you the necessary guidance.
  2. Edit your pain management benefits. You can shift the costs of opioid medications by increasing out-of-pocket costs for extensive use.
  3. Ask your health plan provider to identify inappropriate prescribing. The CDC has new guidelines, and not all health care providers are familiar with the updated rules.
  4. Ask if your health care plan requires regular pain evaluations and limits drug quantities.
  5. Work with your PBM to encourage alternatives to brand-name opioids, such as abuse-deterrent formulations and new, long-acting pills.
  6. Implement a lock-in plan that limits pain benefits to a specific doctor and pharmacy to avoid doctor shopping.
  7. Educate your employees about safely disposing of opioid medications.
  8. Boost the use of your company’s employee assistance program to encourage strong mental health practices.

Given how widespread this problem has become, it’s not unlikely that someone in your company is affected by the opioid epidemic, whether on their own or through a family member. If you work with your management and your health insurance provider to guide your employees toward the services available to them through their health plan, you can help ensure they have the resources they need during a difficult time.

This content is provided solely for informational purposes. It is not intended as and does not constitute legal advice. The information contained herein should not be relied upon or used as a substitute for consultation with legal, accounting, tax and/or other professional advisers.

Dylan Murray has an MBA from San Diego State University and a bachelor’s degree in communication from Boston University. He is a licensed insurance agent in California, but he works as a professional researcher and writer reporting on business trends in estate law, insurance and private security. Dylan has worked as a script analyst with the Sundance Institute and the Scriptwriters Network in Los Angeles. He lives in San Diego, California, and Marseille, France.