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Opioids in the Workplace

Individuals who sustain injuries at work may be more likely to develop opioid use disorder, which affects both their work and home lives. The problem of impairment in the workplace is, however, a serious one. In fact, a staggering 75% of adults with substance use disorders are employed. What’s more, illicit drugs and prescription opioids accounted for nearly 92,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2020.

Approximately half of all off-the-job deaths are caused by drug poisoning, a category that includes opioid overdoses. Further, overexertion, bodily reaction, slips, and falls are some of the most common occupational injuries resulting in days away from work. Furthermore, the risk of developing an opioid use disorder and death from a drug overdose increases for people who take opioid pain relievers too long or in high doses.

Here are the additional costs and consequences of substance abuse for employers.

A lower level of productivity.

Alcoholics and addicts are 33% less productive than their sober counterparts, costing employers $25.5 billion every year. When employees abuse substances, they become careless, distracted, and unreliable, which results in lost productivity. Also, these employees may be more focused with their addiction instead of their deadlines and tasks.

It is also more likely that they will get injured or endanger others' welfare if they show up high or drunk. For example, a quick decision is often life-or-death for professionals in high-stakes fields like police, surgeons, firefighters, and pilots. In addition to absenteeism, addiction also results in increased costs for employers.


In terms of reduced labor participation, the National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that addiction costs businesses $49 billion annually. Employees with substance use disorders miss on average 15 days a year, which is 50% more than their peers who missed 10 days due to injury, illness, or another legitimate reason. There is nearly a three-fold increase in absence among those addicted to opioids or painkillers.

Absences from work pose a serious problem to employers. As others help pick up the slack due to absenteeism, morale, productivity, and job performance can suffer. As a result, employers can experience understaffing issues and spend time and money finding replacements that may not have the same level of skill.

High turnover.

As a result of frequent absences, increased workloads, and low productivity, company morale can suffer when employees drink or use drugs at work. In addition to neglecting their duties, addicted workers behave erratically and create unnecessary stress for their colleagues. There may be some who feel resentful and dread coming into the office because of this.

Having low morale and a stressful working environment can cause turnover since overworked employees tend to seek out new careers. Untreated drug and alcohol problems won't last long, either. In recent years, most workers (three-quarters) have had only one employer, but this number drops to 67% among addicted professionals. It is even more likely for those with opioid use disorders to leave their employers.

Companies lose employees at a high cost as well. It’s estimated that losing an employee can cost 1.5-2 times their salary. However, financial burdens vary according to seniority. It costs $1,500 per employee on average for hourly workers. The cost jumps to 100-150% of the salary for technical positions. A C-suite turnover can cost as much as 213% of a person's salary.

Equal-opportunity destroyer.

There is no doubt that the opioid crisis has a human cost. It is also important to remember that addiction does not discriminate. This problem affects people of all ages, ethnicities, tax brackets, education levels, and industries. Despite the fact that addiction is a serious disease, only one in ten people who need treatment receive it.

The economic impact of addiction and substance misuse has previously been mentioned. The cost of health care, absenteeism, and productivity loss are among those burdens borne by businesses. Despite this, employers are often unaware of how severely addiction impacts their businesses.

Healthcare-related costs.

The annual cost of substance abuse-related healthcare is estimated at $25 billion. Due to their harsh effects on the body, addicted workers often require more medical treatment than the average person. Additionally, they are more likely to suffer from mental health problems as a direct result of drinking or using drugs. Research also suggests that more than half of addicts co-occur with mental disorders.

Due to the fact that nearly every large business provides individual insurance coverage, this is an important consideration. Typically, employers pay 79% of insurance premiums, while workers pay the remaining 21%, along with fees, co-pays, and deductibles. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), respondents with an addiction spent $3.8k on healthcare, compared to $2.3k spent by non-addicts.

Drug or alcohol use is also responsible for 65% of occupational accidents, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Additionally, nearly half of all workers' compensation claims result from impairment or intoxication on the job. Industries that involve complicated tasks or dangerous equipment and machinery are especially susceptible to this.

Addiction: seeing the person behind it.

In the same way that diabetes can be treated and managed successfully, addiction can also be treated and managed. However, it is treated quite differently at most workplaces.

Instead of helping employees achieve and maintain good health, drug-free workplace policies typically focus on penalties - mainly termination. As such, people may be discouraged from seeking help due to such policies that perpetuate stigma and shame.

A high-performing employee may struggle with substance abuse or addiction while bringing tremendous value to their organization. It is possible for these employees to lose their health benefits, which may have helped them seek treatment when they are terminated. This also obviously affects their income, routine, social support, and self-confidence.

The employer will also be forced to spend money and time replacing team members who hold institutional knowledge and experience. There is a need to explore a different approach to recruitment if 25% of employers are struggling to find new employees who are opioid-free.

Businesses benefit from a recovery.

Treatment for addiction can be expensive. A business can save $4,000 in health care costs per dollar it spends on helping employees get treatment. In general, workers in recovery save their employers around $3,200 every year. It can even be as much as $8,400 for some industries.

It is in everyone's best interest to invest in employee recovery. A person's recovery goes beyond rehabilitation, and it can transform them professionally and personally. There are fewer missed workdays, lower turnover rates, and more loyal workers in recovery than in any other group.

Creating a Recovery-ready Workplace

The role of prevention in workforce health should not end there; support should continue after prevention. When addiction treatment is encouraged in the workplace rather than stigmatized, employees are more likely to recover. Furthermore, it helps foster an inclusive work culture by sending a positive and hopeful message to all employees.

Put an end to stigmas.

The stigma of addiction prevents 90% of people who need treatment from receiving it. As people become comfortable discussing addiction and recovery openly and honestly, stigma starts to subside. Employees can seek treatment and speak up for themselves when they know their employer views addiction as a treatable illness.

Provide easy access to recovery.

Treatment needs to be accessible confidentially and without jeopardizing the employee's job security. Consider behavioral therapy, addiction recovery services, as well as medicines such as buprenorphine and naltrexone as part of your health plan. Employers may find it beneficial to have access to an employee assistance program (EAP) that can guide them to the right resources.

Be aware of legal implications.

There are legal implications to every component of the drug-free workplace program, including:

  • The legal advisers of the organization should be involved in the development process.

  • Maintain the confidentiality of employees.

  • Follow all federal, state, and local regulations, including but not limited to OSHA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Mental Health Parity Act.

  • Observe union and industry regulations.

Continue to provide support.

There are some people who continue to work while undergoing addiction treatment. However, it may be necessary for some people to take a break. Any way you look at it, the first step to recovery is treatment. For long-term sobriety, it is equally important to create a supportive working environment:

  • During business hours, make reasonable accommodations, such as allowing flexibility for therapy attendance.

  • If you want to make work events more inclusive of employees in recovery, make them alcohol-free.

  • Encourage a healthy work-life balance. In order to recover, employees need to know that taking time off and taking care of themselves is okay.

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