April 8, 2021

Why employers should be paying attention the prescription opioid abuse epidemic

Opioid use disorder (OUD), also known as opioid abuse, opioid dependence, or opioid addiction, is a pattern of opioid use that often results in significant impairment or distress. OUD can affect anyone regardless of race, gender, age, or social class. There is often a stigma associated with OUD that assumes those struggling with addiction are often injection drug users that are abusing heroin. The reality is that Americans are five times more likely to abuse or be dependent on prescription pain relievers than heroin. In fact, it is as common as the dependence or abuse of cocaine, and more common than dependence or abuse of any other drug except marijuana. Abusers of prescription opioids are more likely to have higher incomes meaning it is likely they are gainfully employed. In 2019, the National Safety Council reports that approximately two-thirds of people affected by OUD are contributing members of the workforce.

Why do people initially become involved with prescription opioids? To relieve pain. A 2016 report on workers’ compensation showed that 65% to 85% of workers may be prescribed opioids for pain relief.

Impacts on the Workforce

A major setback to employers is a reduction in productivity that often shows up as increased absenteeism and high turnover rates. It also impacts an organization’s bottom line through more costly workers’ compensation claims. According to a recent study from Johns Hopkins University, employees with as little as one opioid prescription had an average total workers’ compensation claim that was three times that of similar claimants who did not receive opioids. Employers spend about $25.6 billion yearly due to the implications of the prescription opioid epidemic.

Although it can be difficult to detect employees who are struggling with OUD, some of the most observed signs include drowsiness, weight loss, frequent flu-like symptoms, and isolation from work friends. These have been linked to impaired thinking and reaction time which can put employees at a greater risk for accidents and injuries and compromise the performance of safety-sensitive job functions.  Employees in construction, transportation, and material moving jobs have been hit hard by the epidemic.

What Can Employers Do to Help?

First and foremost, empathy is key. People struggling with addiction should be treated in the same way as someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. OUD and other behavioral health issues are considered a disease and not a moral failing.

  • Choose occupational health providers with safe prescribing practices who use evidence-based prescription and alternative treatment techniques to reduce the need for opioids.
  • Offer treatment options through employee assistance programs. Treatment that is initiated by an employer is more effective than when initiated by friends or family.
  • Provide education and training to staff on OUD and other behavioral health conditions. This can help reduce stigma and encourage help-seeking behavior.


Community Health Partnership (CHP) supports community-centered planning to address the opioid epidemic and other substance use issues in the Pikes Peak region and in 2016 established the Coalition for Prevention Education, Addiction and Recovery. CPAR’s mission is to build a sustainable community of partnerships committed to preventing and reducing substance misuse by promoting a culture of wellness through education, prevention, treatment, and recovery support. If you are interested in additional resources or to learn more about how you can join support CPAR’s work, contact PJ Higgins, Project Manager at pj.higgins@ppchp.org.

Blog post courtesy of Pikes Peak Community Health Partnership.