Prescription Drug Use Affects More Than 70% of Employers

By Britni de la Cretaz 03/14/17

A new report details the impact that prescription drug misuse is having on employers. 

Business people working.

A new study looks at how prescription drug abuse is affecting workplaces, and the numbers are alarming. The study, conducted by the National Safety Council, talked to about 500 “HR decision makers” at U.S. employers with 50 or more employees.

It found that over 70% of employers have been affected by prescription drug use at their companies, but only 19% feel prepared to deal with the issue of misuse. Perhaps most unsettling is that although 71% of employers feel prescription drug use is an illness that needs treatment, 65% feel it is a fireable offense.

According to research, 44% of Americans know someone who is addicted to a prescription painkiller. Seventy-five percent of those struggling with a substance use disorder are in the workforce, which means that employers need to find a way to deal with the issue, but many are floundering—only 13% are “very confident” that employees can spot signs of misuse and yet 76% do not offer any form of training on the matter.

One study found that drug abuse costs employers $81 billion per year.

Of those employers that drug test employees, 41% are not testing for synthetic opioids. However, it’s unclear whether they should be; if drugs are prescribed to someone and they are taking them as prescribed, having those drugs show up on a drug test could not only stigmatize someone, but feel like a breach of confidentiality in terms of someone’s medical condition.

Similarly, 39% of employers cited absenteeism or missed work as a result of employees’ prescription drug usage. But if someone is taking prescription pain medication for a legitimate medical condition, the missed work could just as likely be the result of the underlying medical condition, and not the drug usage itself.

These questions get to the heart of just why it’s so difficult to adequately address addiction, particularly when it involves medication that the majority of patients take as prescribed to them. Solutions need to both address the very real problem of prescription drug misuse, while taking pains not to stigmatize people who need the medication and don't abuse it, and without making it harder for those people to access medications they need.

“Employers must understand that the most dangerously misused drug today may be sitting in employees’ medicine cabinets,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “Even when they are taken as prescribed, prescription drugs and opioids can impair workers and create hazards on the job. We hope these findings prompt employers to take the lead on this emerging issue so that workplaces can be as safe as possible.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.