In last month's column, we looked at the opioid crisis in America and how, in times of low unemployment, the pool of available labor is likely to include people addicted to opioids.
While the majority of opioid users are taking the drugs under a doctor's prescription, many are not. Opioids are highly addictive, and users can build up a tolerance to them over time. Higher doses, often not prescribed, are then needed to obtain relief. Of course, such additions can affect work performance and create liabilities for employers.
Prescription opioids are legal drugs. However, employers can set work rules to assure safe working conditions. Many times, workers begin taking opioids long after the start of their employment with a company, perhaps to counter the effects of age or injuries. Often, the employee is the last to see when use has crossed the line into addiction and impairment. That's why it's critical to have a policy with specific rules governing drug use, including a section on performance expectations and the consequences of falling short.
"Some people do need the drugs to function. That's where a clear policy comes in. You want to make sure you put them in a place of safety," says Rachael Cooper, senior program manager for substance use prevention at the National Safety Council.
Cooper says that many employees simply don't know how to get help once they realize they have a problem. Good communication is key. Workers should always feel free to speak with their employers without fear of job loss or retribution, and they should be encouraged to let employers know when they are taking medications, especially if operating machinery.
Supervisors should be trained to look for signs of drug use and to get employees help when needed. The drug policy should provide specific steps to provide appropriate treatment.
"Employers can play a significant role in recovery," notes Cooper. "Employees seem to engage more in their recovery if they have support from their employers."
She suggests that employers get to know what local resources are available for treatment. Resources for treatment are also typically available through the company insurance coverage, including mental health services.
Even so, it is not easy to shake an addiction. The national average is six tries before a successful recovery. But once an employee has recovered, they tend to be loyal and productive, which provides a win-win for everyone.
Editor's note: For more information, visit the National Safety Council's website.