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Groups assist workplaces in evaluating the impact of employee substance use

March 29, 2017
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Gaps and inconsistencies in employers' awareness of substance use's impact on the workplace have led a group of organizations to establish an online tool to help businesses calculate the effects.

A newly released online tool developed by the National Safety Council, the research institution NORC at the University of Chicago, and advocacy organization Shatterproof uses baseline company information to estimate costs of unaddressed substance use and the benefits of helping employees to seek treatment. Results of a National Safety Council survey, which found that only one in five employers believe their organization is highly prepared to deal with prescription drug misuse in their workforce, calls attention to the need for more employer training.

“We were concerned that many companies were not responding adequately to prescription misuse, either in their policies or their programming,” says Tess Benham, senior program manager of the National Safety Council's prescription drug overdose initiative.

The survey of just over 500 human resources decision-makers, conducted last December, found that issues such as the cost of benefits and the ability to hire qualified workers topped the list of these leaders' workplace concerns. But they ranked as less important a number of substance misuse factors that directly affect these other sources of anxiety.

“They may not be connecting the dots to the root cause of some of their issues,” Benham tells Addiction Professional.

Cost calculator

The release of the Substance Use Cost Calculator came about as a result of the synergy discovered among the three participating organizations. The National Safety Council and Shatterproof, the latter founded by hotel executive Gary Mendell, had worked together on other opioid-focused initiatives, and saw the promise of NORC vice president of public health Eric Goplerud's work on the impacts of substance use in the workplace.

The free online calculator allows a company to enter its industry, state, and number of employees in order to receive an estimate of the total cost of substance use in their workplace, based on demographic data. “It estimates the number of employees who may be having problems, states what are the most likely substances to be causing issues in their workforce, and tells them how they can avoid these costs by taking action,” says Benham.

In some of the findings of the recent survey and related analyses:

  • The construction, entertainment, recreation and food service industries have twice the national average number of workers with substance use disorders.

  • Substance abuse problems are significantly lower in fields dominated by women or older adults.

  • Healthcare costs for employees who misuse prescription drugs are three times those of the typical employee.

  • Individuals in recovery for at least a year miss on average five fewer days of work per year than individuals actively using substances, and miss one fewer day per year than the average rate for the general workforce.

Benham adds that as employers step up their engagement of at-risk employees, they find that more costs are avoided. Companies should therefore intensify the effort to identify, intervene and assist in treatment-seeking, she says.

The survey, conducted by B2B International, found that 76% of the participating companies are not offering training on how to identify signs of misuse. More than 8 in 10 do not have a comprehensive drug-free workplace policy.

In addition, while 71% of respondents at least somewhat agreed that prescription drug misuse is a disease that should be treated like any chronic condition, 65% also at least somewhat agreed that prescription drug misuse served as a justifiable reason to fire an employee.