The Opioid Epidemic: How to Address Drug Use in the Workplace

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Dan Jolivet
The opioid epidemic can present a unique challenge for employers.

It’s easy to think that prescription drugs don’t impact you or the people you work with because there aren’t always clear signs of use. But the use and abuse of opioids, specifically, is rapidly escalating — so much so, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services declared it a public health emergency last October.1

The opioid epidemic can present a unique challenge for employers because, when taken as prescribed, prescription opioids can have both a beneficial effect for patients with significant pain and inherent risks and dangers. Even appropriate use of prescription medication like opioids can cause impairment and can lead to accidents.

Let’s look at an example: If an employee has an accident and suffers an injury, you may see signs of the injury at work and then help by providing physical accommodations necessary for the employee to be productive. However, it’s not obvious if the employee was also prescribed opioids for the pain related to that injury. If the employee doesn’t tell anyone about the prescription, they could continue their everyday duties, like operating heavy machinery, when they should be restricted.

Examples like this are the reason why, even though you may not be able to clearly see signs of drug use in those around you, it’s important to proactively address drug use in the workplace. You can do that by providing accommodations and with updates on policy, procedure and communication:

Short-Term Accommodations

Determining potential short-term accommodations can help address the limitations of or restrictions put on an injured or medicated employee. If a doctor limits or restricts an employee from doing key elements of their job because of the effects of a prescription drug, you can work with your disability carrier or a program like Workplace PossibilitiesSM to minimize the impact with short-term accommodations that help the employee be productive and safe while recovering.

Policies and Procedures

If you do not have one already, consider a comprehensive drug policy that can provide guidance and help an employer address issues that may arise if an employee misuses prescription drugs. It may be beneficial to include a description of available assistance options for employees who are struggling with substance abuse and clear consequences for employees who violate the policy, empowering supervisors to take appropriate action in response to employee issues.

Destigmatizing Use

The bottom line is that it’s easier to help someone if they come forward and, right now, stigma around opioid and other medication use can cause employees to keep their prescription use to themselves. Through open lines of communication, you can help destigmatize prescription drug use so employees feel comfortable coming forward if they’re taking medications that could limit them at work. Open communication, combined with the short-term accommodations and clear policies can help employees feel comfortable with coming forward.

With these steps, you can help proactively address drug use in the workplace and even impact the opioid epidemic. You can help support employees and ultimately make the workplace safer for all.


1 HHS Acting Secretary Declares Public Health Emergency to Address National Opioid Crisis (Press Release), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2017,