Destigmatizing Employee Illness, Part 6: Opioid Addiction

Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Muscle aches, sleeplessness, anxiety, nausea — the list of opioid withdrawal symptoms goes on. At any given moment, an employee could be in the thick of it, and their coworkers might never know. Meanwhile, the sufferer just continues suffering because they’re ashamed to speak up.

This is why opioid addiction is considered an invisible illness. Millions of people are in the grip of opioid use disorder, and helping them overcome it begins with removing the stigma.

The Genesis of America’s Opioid Crisis, at Home and at Work

Opioid addiction had benign beginnings, when some doctors prescribed opioids for injuries as minor as an ankle sprain. Unaware that those medications were habit-forming, patients took what their doctors prescribed. Over time, they found they couldn’t stop.

Pain pill misuse snowballs into tolerance and dependence, with many users needing to constantly increase their dose to dodge withdrawal. When scripts get hard to come by, some people turn to heroin and fentanyl instead — and simple injuries morph into serious drug addictions.

That’s where we are now: An estimated 1.7 million people have a substance use disorder involving opioid pain pills. Workers with these disorders miss 50% more days of work than other employees and are up to five times more likely to be late. But, considering the risks of on-the-job drug overdoses and other safety concerns, the costs to U.S. businesses are far greater than a tardy workforce. Lives are at stake.

Clearly, employers have a profound interest in connecting employees with the treatment they need. Stigma, however, makes that a challenge.

Stigmatized Addiction in the Workplace — and How Employers Can Help

Substance use disorders are so deeply stigmatized that more than 20% of drug users opt out of evidence-based care because they’re worried about repercussions at work. Even though substance use disorder is a protected class (with some restrictions) under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employees may fear that disclosing their struggles would call their performance into question or hold them back from new opportunities or promotions.

Employers are in a unique position to help. The following three strategies work to combat stigma and ensure access to specialized resources and benefits for employees and their families, so you can help those who are silently struggling.

1. Raise Awareness

Add more content on substance use disorders to your benefits communications, alongside other important health information about cancer screenings or heart disease prevention.

For inspiration, browse the Prescription Drug Employer Toolkit from the National Safety Council. The guide has resources explaining the business impact of prescription drug misuse, as well as educational posters, handouts, survivor stories and talking points to share with employees.

2. Institute a Blame-Free Policy

Encourage your workforce to have more supportive conversations around substance use disorder and the risks associated with it — but be certain those conversations don’t assign blame. Educate managers and supervisors on the seriousness and prevalence of substance use disorders through sensitivity training, workshops or other communications.

Also, remember that words matter. Terms like “addict,” “junkie” or “drug abuser” perpetuate the stigma — so choose nonjudgmental words such as “opioid misuse” or “person with a substance use disorder” to take the conversation in a more positive, supportive direction.

If you have an hour to spare, this workplace wellness webinar from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helps lay the foundation for preventing prescription drug misuse.

3. Craft More Comprehensive Benefits

Employees who misuse opioids may have medical needs that go beyond the parameters of traditional health plans; in response you can thoughtfully craft a more comprehensive benefits package. Depending on the needs of your employees, useful benefits might include:

  • Non-opioid pain management techniques, like acupuncture or massage
  • Prescription drug misuse screening
  • Peer-based support groups, as well as counseling or therapy
  • Employee assistance programs that are promoted across the workplace

For more, the SAMHSA has a great resource for structuring benefits packages with prescription drug misuse in mind that includes the above benefits, plus many other substance use-specific resources.

Adapt for Your Organization’s Needs

As you consider what changes would make your workplace a safer, more supportive place, keep in mind that there’s no single model that works for all businesses. It largely depends on the specific needs of your employees.

Opioid addiction has rocked personal and professional lives alike, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Overcoming this issue will require a commitment to overcoming stereotypes and encouraging people who need help to get it — and employers are more than up to the task.

This is the sixth article in an ongoing series about destigmatizing “invisible” illnesses in the workplace. Check out the previous articles in this series, about mental health, diabetes, chronic pain and autoimmune disorders.

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