Drugs at Work

Drugs at Work: What Employers Need to Know

Nearly 21 million Americans are living with substance use disorder, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. That's more than the total number of people living with cancer and more than the population of the state of New York.

Three-quarters of those struggling with alcohol, pain medication, marijuana and other substance use disorders are employed. Workers with substance use disorders may miss nearly 50% more work days than their peers – up to six weeks annually – and absenteeism leads to losses in productivity.

Employers Are Key in Recognizing, Stoping Substance Misuse

The White House Council of Economic Advisors further estimated the opioid crisis alone cost the U.S. economy $696 billion alone in 2018. Employers are becoming more aware of the problem. In a National Safety Council survey, 86% of employers were concerned that prescription opioid use was having a negative impact on their workplace, and 74% were concerned about heroin and fentanyl having a negative impact on their workplace.

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What Employers Told Us

Workers in recovery have lower turnover rates and are less likely to miss work days, less likely to be hospitalized and have fewer doctor visits. An NSC survey found:

  • Employers were most concerned about the costs of benefits (86%), ability to hire qualified workers (90%) and costs of workers' compensation (86%) than misuse of opioids (79 – 83%, depending on the type of opioids) and illegal drug sale or use (75%)
  • Over 75% of employers have been affected in some way by employee opioid use, with 38% experiencing impacts related to absenteeism or impaired worker performance
  • only 17% believe their organization is extremely well prepared to deal with opioid use in the workplace
  • While employee training and education is a main driver of preparedness, only 28% offer opioid-specific training and education to their workforce

How Employers Can Make a Difference

NSC found health care costs for employees who misuse prescription opioid pain relievers are three times higher than for an average employee. The annual cost of untreated substance use disorder ranges from $2,600 per employee in agriculture to more than $13,000 per employee in information and communications.

Employers can take simple steps to protect themselves and their employees:

  • Recognize impact of drug misuse on the bottom line
  • Educate and engage workforce on the topic of opioids
  • Enact clear and strong company drug-free workplace policies; ensure consistent and comprehensive communication with employees
  • Expand drug panel testing to include opioids
  • Train supervisors and employees to spot the first signs of drug misuse and impairment
  • Treat substance use disorders as a medical condition that can and should be treated; ensure evidence-based treatment mechanisms are covered by employer health care plans
  • Leverage employee assistance programs and other similar resources to help employees return to work and support employees in recovery

Implications for Employers

Employers might not know where to start when evaluating how to implement or update a drug free workplace program. See Implications for Employers for an overview.