How Employers Can Curb a ‘Hidden Workplace Epidemic,’ Save Money and Boost Productivity

June 27, 2017

Every day, 60 people die from opioid pain medications in America. That’s 22,000 people every year. Opioids are being overprescribed and they’re now the #1 cause of unintentional death in the United States. Not surprisingly, this “hidden epidemic” is impacting businesses. The National Safety Council has recommendations on what employers need to do.


It may seem hard to digest at first, but more than 70 percent of American businesses say the use of narcotic painkillers by workers is affecting their businesses.

A recent survey by the National Safety Council found seven in ten employers are feeling the direct impact of prescription drug misuse in their workplaces. The survey, the first of its kind in the nation, also found that although 71 percent of employers agree that prescription drug misuse is a disease that requires treatment, 65 percent feel it is a justifiable reason to fire an employee.

“Employers must understand that the most dangerously misused drug today may be sitting in employees’ medicine cabinets,” NSC President and CEO Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement. “Even when they are taken as prescribed, prescription drugs and opioids can impair workers and create hazards on the job. We hope these findings prompt employers to take the lead on this emerging issue so that workplaces can be as safe as possible.”

Drug poisonings, largely from opioid painkillers, now surpass car accidents as the leading cause of preventable death among adults. Nearly half of Americans are personally impacted by prescription drug addiction, with 44 percent knowing someone who is addicted to a prescription pain reliever. Seven in ten of those struggling with a substance use disorder are in the workforce, revealing a hidden epidemic that many employers are struggling to address.

What the Survey Found

Other key findings from the survey include:
  • Only 19 percent of employers feel “extremely prepared” to deal with prescription drug misuse in the workplace.

  • Although just 13 percent are “very confident” that employers can spot the signs of misuse, 76 percent do not offer training to help close that knowledge gap.

  • 81 percent of respondents’ policies lack at least one critical element of an effective drug-free workplace program.

  • Just 57 percent are drug testing all employees; of those employers who conduct drug testing, 41 percent are not testing for synthetic opioids.

  • 88 percent are interested in their insurer covering alternatives to pain relief treatment so that employees can avoid taking opioids. Nearly 60 percent believe the insurance company will be responsive, but 30 percent of those employers will not act on that interest.

  • Encouragingly, 70 percent would like to help employees struggling with prescription drug misuse return to their positions after completing treatment.

Steps Employers Can Take to Curb Drug Use

Why should employers care about worker abuse of painkillers? Prescription painkiller abuse costs employers nearly $42 billion because employees are less productive while at work or don’t show up at all.

Employees who abuse drugs are two to five times more likely to:
  • Take unexcused absences

  • Be late for work

  • Quit or be fired within one year of employment

  • Be involved in workplace incidents

  • File workers’ compensation claims


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 12 million U.S. residents used prescription painkillers nonmedically in 2016.

Many nonmedical users of prescription painkillers are employed, and therefore prescription drug use affects employers of all company sizes and in all industries.

So, what should employers do? The NSC advises employers to take the following steps to curb drug use in the workplace:
  • Educate employees about the health and productivity issues related to prescription drug abuse.

  • Incorporate information about substance abuse in workplace wellness programs or strategies.

  • Offer health benefits that provide coverage for substance abuse disorders.

  • Expand drug testing to include prescription drugs.

  • Publicize drug-free workplace policies and incorporate guidelines regarding prescription drugs.

  • Provide employee assistance programs (EAPs), wellness and work-life programs that include information and services related to substance abuse prevention, treatment and return to work issues.

  • Train managers to recognize and respond to substance abuse issues so problems can be addressed in cost-effective and business-sensitive ways.


The NSC provides a free Prescription Drug Employer Kit to help employers establish policies and manage opioid use at work. For resources and information about prescription drug abuse both in the workplace and at home, visit nsc.org/rxpainkillers.

For more information about how the opioid epidemic is affecting the workplace and what you can do about it, please contact us today.

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