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Archived: Epidemic of Addiction to Painkillers Seeps into the Workplace

Posted on July 10, 2012

Few employers are aware that epidemic misuse of legal, highly addictive and heavily regulated prescription painkillers is seeping into the workplace. Even fewer companies know how to manage a problem that federal authorities say kills more Americans each year than overdoses of cocaine and heroin – combined.

DrugsA research letter in the Archives of Internal Medicine found recently that use of prescription painkillers without a medical need increased 75 percent from 2002 to 2010.  Men and people ages 26 to 49 saw the largest increase, taking the drugs on average 200 or more days a year. More than 15,500 people fatally overdosed on pills such as OxyContin and Vicodin in 2009, more than double since 2002, the paper said.

Those numbers make it inevitable that the prescription painkiller problem will show up in the workplace. The impact of drug abuse is not only a burden on productivity, absenteeism, relationships and workplace safety; it also brings legal compliance complexity through the Americans with Disabilities Act, Family and Medical Leave Act, and Department of Transportation regulations to name a few.

Identifying opiate problems in your workplace is first step to managing the issue. Red flags may include:

  • Absenteeism and on-the-job absenteeism: An employee takes longer and more frequent breaks, comes in late, and will often be ‘missing in action;’
  • High accident rate: Clumsy and unfocused, disregard of standards.
  • Difficulty concentrating and confusion;
  • Inconsistent work patterns, e.g. becoming unable to take initiative or work independently;
  • Reduced knowledge/technical skills: No longer stays on top of the game;
  • Change in behavior and attitudes: Behaves inappropriately, becomes emotional, or withdrawn, with poor relationships at work; and
  • Lower job quality and productivity.

It’s not always the employer who will recognize potential addiction.  An employee will sometimes self-identify an addiction and solicit help to get clean.

What should an employer do or not do in these circumstances?  What are the best practices in terms of protecting the business as well as helping the employee?

The key areas of focus include:

  • Review relevant policies to ensure clarity among everyone in the organization on how these concerns will be handled;
  • Inventory benefits available to address addition;
  • Train direct line supervisors on how to react when the concern, or suspected concern arise in the workplace; and
  • Analyze your past practices and identify outside resources.

“The use of prescription painkillers in the workplace can impact workplace safety and productivity.  With this in mind, it is important that employers implement a written drug-free workplace policy that addresses prescription drug use in the workplace,” said Amy Royal, an employment lawyer at Royal LLP in Northampton.

“In addition, supervisors should be trained to recognize the warning signs of prescription drug use and to know what their role is in enforcing the company’s drug-free workplace policy.”

Royal will be among the participants in August when AIM conducts a Webinar providing legal, medical and HR approaches to managing painkiller addiction in the workplace. The session will take place August 2 from 10 – 11:15 a.m. It is free to AIM members and $75 for non-members.


And feel free to contact me at with your questions.