After struggling with pain from severe headaches, Michele Zumwalt turned to her doctor for help. He prescribed Demerol to manage the pain. But soon after starting treatment, Michele noticed that she started having headaches if she didn’t have her medication. Over the next several years, what started as a way to manage chronic pain turned into a full-blown addiction to painkillers. Working in corporate sales, she recounted putting on entire presentations for clients and not even remembering the conversations. What’s more, her clients did not notice her silent addiction. Now sober for over 12 years, Zumwalt wrote of her experience in a book about recovery called Ruby Shoes.
In 2017, what was once a problem that we thought was far from our homes and offices now affects our families, our coworkers, and our communities. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Since 2000, the rate of opioid overdose deaths has more than doubled, and the cost of inpatient hospitalizations due to overdose since 2002 has nearly quadrupled. And because of the highly addictive nature of painkillers, addiction has no prejudice. It affects people from all walks of life, including seniors, celebrities, teens, professionals and newborns.
Opioid addiction is an epidemic, and it touches the workplace with the same pervasive force. Opioid abuse costs employers approximately $12 billion annually. A 2016 study by Castlight Health found that 1 out of every 3 opioid prescriptions covered by employers is abused, and that painkiller abusers cost employers nearly twice as much ($19,450) in medical expenses on average annually as non-abusers. Opioid addiction is rarely discussed in the workplace, and those affected tend to be very good at hiding their addiction. But there are some simple steps employers can take to help to address opioid use and dependence.
1. Understand the impact. A look into a company’s own health data is the first step is to understanding how exactly opioid use affects their employees. Understanding how painkillers are being prescribed, when opiates result in emergency treatment and the correlation to absences and workers compensation claims helps to quantify the problem for a company. Understanding the scope of the issue informs decisions on a written drug-use policy, whether to do employee drug testing and what drugs to test, how to educate managers and staff, and how to best provide resources to help employees and their families.
2. Reduce the stigma. Most employees struggling with addiction are doing so in silence. They may fear losing their job, and they have developed all sorts of strategies to hide their addiction from their families, friends and coworkers. Employers can play a key role in leading the charge to normalize the discussion on addiction. By helping to lead the conversation in educating employees on opioid use and addiction resources, they can help break the barriers that prevent people from recognizing dependence and seeking treatment.
3. Open access to treatment resources. When companies understand how addiction is impacting their employees and their health costs, they are well-positioned to match member needs with necessary addiction treatment services. These companies may find that they need tools beyond the traditional employee assistance program, as they open access to treatment centers and other helpful tools to support people through recovery. By making data-driven decisions, opening access to resources, and communicating with members, companies can further remove the barriers that keep people from seeking treatment.
It’s hard to believe that Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign for the War on Drugs began over 30 years ago. In those days, we imagined the detectable dangers of drugs as dealers hanging out on playgrounds, giving out drugs to kids like candy. But today in 2017, the danger that faces 20.5 million Americans is much harder to recognize. Many addictions aren’t born on street-corners; they start in the doctor’s office. And whether an employer chooses to address the epidemic or not, they have co-workers who wake up and face a life driven by addiction every day. Isn’t it time we as employers become part of the solution?
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BetaXAnalytics uses “data for good” to improve the cost and quality of health care for employers. By combining PhD-level expertise with the latest technology, they help employers to become savvy health consumers, saving health dollars and better targeting health interventions to keep employees well.