The Opioid Epidemic: What to Know to Help Protect Your Workforce

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Jeff Guardalabene
The use and abuse of opioids is a pressing issue in the workplace reaching near-epidemic levels.

In a recent post, I highlighted the ongoing issues that can occur as a result of employees struggling with alcohol abuse. The use and abuse of opioids is another pressing issue in the workplace reaching near-epidemic levels.

Opioid Use on the Rise

The numbers around the opioid epidemic are startling. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled since 1999.1 While many of these medications can have a beneficial effect for patients with significant pain when taken as prescribed, there are inherent risks and dangers, including accidents and potential overdose deaths.

The use of prescription opioids presents a special challenge to employers. These drugs are legally prescribed by licensed providers, and are sometimes prescribed in response to an injury that occurred in the workplace. The increase in availability and use of these drugs has outpaced most drug-free workplace policies, and challenges can arise around the definition of “impairment” and the administration of testing.

Signs of Use and Ways to Provide Help

Unlike the stereotypical “addict” that many imagine, signs of opioid abuse in an employee is often more subtle than those in an employee abusing alcohol. An employee under the influence of opioid medication may seem relaxed and fully functional (and, certainly, some are and will stay this way), but careful observation over time can be more revealing.

Signs of current abuse include mood swings, fluctuations in energy level, and even moments of “nodding off” at their desk or elsewhere. As the drug begins to wear off, many will show evidence of withdrawal, including irritability, gastrointestinal distress, and removing themselves from workplace activities or social contact.

As with abuse of alcohol, opioid abuse is a problem that can become quite serious in a hurry. The need to keep employees safe, functional and productive is magnified in these cases. The sooner an employer takes steps to address the problem, the better.

These steps can include:

  • Educating employees about the dangers of using opioids in the workplace
  • Revising your organization’s management training to include training to help managers spot signs of addiction
  • Updating workplace policies to address the ongoing epidemic of opioid use and abuse
  • Including opioid screening in workplace drug-testing programs

HR policies should be vetted to include treatment options for employees, when possible. In addition, employers will benefit from working as a team with their employee assistance provider and their disability insurance carrier to help ensure that an employee who may be at-risk is referred to the proper treatment.

By knowing the ways you can help to prevent workplace opioid use, and understanding that your disability carrier can be a key partner for an employee experiencing issues with addiction, you can help to make your workplace safer for all.


1 The CDC. Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER). Atlanta, Georgia: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics; 2016,