Adding Up The Impact

A new NSC tool can let organizations see the real costs of abuse

Jenny Burke is the Senior Director for Advocacy at the National Safety Council.

America’s drug crisis has made its way into the workplace.

While the unprecedented rise in fatal drug overdoses – largely from prescription painkillers – has concerned public health professionals and lawmakers for years, little has been said about the epidemic’s impact on employers. Although 75 percent of adults who struggle with addictions are in the workforce, society overwhelmingly sees drug overdose and abuse as a problem limited to our homes and communities.

However, addiction does not end at the front stoop or magically subside between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Addiction is an around-the-clock disease, and 71 percent of employers have been impacted by it in some way.

A new National Safety Council survey found 7 in 10 employers have felt the direct impact of prescription drugs. The adverse effects range from positive drug tests and absenteeism to decreased job performance and on-the-job injuries. A shocking 20 percent of employers say they have had employees borrowing or selling drugs at work, or an employee arrested either on or off the job.

There is a persistent gap, however, between how employers perceive the impact and the actual human and business costs. Only 39 percent of employers view prescription drug use as a threat to safety, and only 24 percent feel it is a problem. Employers are more concerned about the cost of benefits (95 percent), ability to hire qualified workers (93 percent), worker’s compensation costs (84 percent) and workplace violence (67 percent). Sadly, prescription drug use impacts every one of those issues, but it ranked seventh of the eight issues employers said concern them most.

What’s more, only 19 percent of employers feel ‘extremely prepared’ to deal with prescription drug misuse at work, and just 13 percent are ‘very confident’ that employees can spot signs of misuse, which range from decreases in work productivity to increased absenteeism, mistakes and injuries.

So what can be done?

Change starts with helping employers recognize the steps they can take and understand the benefits of employer-initiated assistance. For some employees, employer engagement literally could mean the difference between life and death. Research indicates that those struggling with a substance use disorders have better sustained recovery rates if their employers initiate and monitor their treatment than if that treatment is initiated by friends or family.

Aside from concern for employee wellbeing and safety, employers should consider their bottom lines. Prescription painkiller use profoundly increases workers’ compensation costs, length of worker disability and lost work time.

In the wake of these findings, the National Safety Council partnered with Shatterproof and NORC at the University of Chicago to develop the Substance Use Cost Calculator. Released just last week, the tool provides employers with a customized assessment of the financial benefits of addressing substance abuse in their workplaces, and the literal price of doing nothing. The calculator is available at nsc.org/drugsatwork​. It takes only a moment to input company information and see both the human and fiscal savings.

Substance misuse and addiction is a complex issue that requires everyone to play a role. Employers cannot be ostriches and stick their heads in the sand. We encourage employers to use the calculator as a resource to strengthen existing policies, educate staff and make access to treatment readily available to employees who need it.

Safety should be the cornerstone of every workplace. If employers understand how to protect employees from the most pressing threats to their safety, that goal can be a reality.

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