When Opioid Abuse Invades the Workplace: Panel Discusses Interoffice Addiction

In 2016, more than 1,600 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses — the highest number in state history.

“Every number is a person; every number is a story; every number is a family,” said Susan Cooper, senior vice president and chief integration officer at Regional One Health.

Cooper moderated a panel on opioids in the workplace April 12 at Regional One’s East Memphis’ campus. In addition to the cost to individuals and families, the opioid epidemic has had a impact in the business world.

“Most of the people who fall within all of those numbers … are working individuals,” said Donna DiClementi, director of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s Employee Assistance Program. “So, they fall within your businesses; they fall within your benefit infrastructure; and they fall within the productivity. … As much as we care about the health of our employees by talking about obesity and cardiovascular risk and diabetes, we also need to be talking about their behavioral health. What they’re doing with prescription medication and nonprescription medication is part of health.”

A recently released Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found employers spent $2.6 billion treating opioid addictions and overdoses, from both prescription and illegal drugs, in 2016.

DiClementi said the red flags for opioid addiction are commonly shared with other conditions.

“I think what’s really important is to know your employees,” she said. “What was their baseline productivity and behavior level and has something changed? You may hire someone and they always have presenteeism: they’re there but they’re not really there. But, you hire somebody, and they’re a really great worker — then you start to see signs of a decline or behavior that’s not typical for them. These are times where we need to be aware that something is happening.”

Consultant and panelist Judy Bell said it’s important for supervisors and managers not to avoid a problem, but they need to be careful in how they approach it.

“The best thing is for a supervisor or manager to sit down with someone and say ‘You know, I’ve noticed that your work is not at the level it’s been in the past,'” Bell said. “In other words, you wouldn’t want to say, ‘You know you look tired; are you doing drugs?'”

Jeff Weintraub, labor and employment attorney with Fisher Phillips’ Memphis office, said the first evidence he usually gets that there’s a prescription drug problem is an HR rep calls him and says, “We don’t know what’s wrong with this employee. But, something’s wrong.”

Weintraub said that it is important that supervisors know about signs, symptoms and related risks, not just executives.

“People interacting with employees on the front-line are the ones that have to be trained,” he said.

Weintraub also went through some of the legal issues of dealing with opioid addiction in the workplace, specifically the Americans with Disabilites Act (ADA).

“Drug addiction is a protected disability under the ADA,” he said. “However, current illegal drug users are not protected under the ADA. … Casual illegal drug use is not a disability under the ADA, and you can turn away employees who have a history of casual use.”

He advised that employers can’t do medical inquiries on applicants (i.e. ask if they use legal drugs); employers shouldn’t ask employees medical inquires (exception: if person is changing positions and if it’s job related) and can’t use that information to discriminate against them; post-offer, pre-employment, employers can ask employees medical inquiries, but should not necessarily.

“It is absolutely stupid for most employers to ask employees — when they can ask them — about what medical conditions they have,” he said.

Employers cannot generally test for legal drugs until offer the job offer has been made, Weintraub said.

One way to deal with preventing opioid abuse, Weintraub said, is giving more leave, offering employees more time for treatment or to allow them to work remotely.

Allied Against Opioid Abuse, a national initiative to help prevent the abuse of prescription opioids, sponsored the event, along with SHRM-Memphis, the Greater Memphis Chamber and Regional One Health.

This article was originally published in the Memphis Business Journal.