The benefits of addressing opioid use in the workplace, the risks of ignoring it

Opioid addiction is a growing problem. Addiction to prescription opioids (painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet) has grown to epidemic proportions in the United States and Pennsylvania has been hit particularly hard.

Anyone can become addicted. One in five Americans say a family member has been addicted to prescription painkillers.[1] In Pennsylvania and across the country, opioid addiction affects men and women of all ages and races, from small towns and big cities. Most people with unhealthy drug use are employed full-time.

What does that mean for you, as an employer? It means your employees have a growing risk of opioid addiction and some may already be struggling with addiction—whether you know it or not.

Addictions of any kind can cause problems at work. However, opioids are a special case because:

  • They are medications that are sometimes prescribed for legitimate conditions. Americans see the risks of medications as smaller than they really are.
  • Problems with prescription painkillers can lead to heroin use, which has severe consequences for families and workplaces.

As an employer, you can improve your company culture—and your bottom line—by taking steps to address at-risk opioid use and opioid addiction.

The Risks of Doing Nothing


On average, workers who use prescription opioids non-medically are absent from work about three extra days per year. In fact, the effect of non-medical opioid use on absenteeism is greater than heavy alcohol use.[2]

Absenteeism due to opioid addiction cost American employers $1.1 billion in 2007.[3]

Healthcare Costs

Healthcare costs related to opiate addiction are skyrocketing. The number of private health insurance claims related to opioid dependence soared by 3,204 percent from 2007 to 2014.[4]

On average, people with at-risk opioid use (possible addiction) cost employers nearly twice as much in annual healthcare expenses as those without at-risk use.[5]

There are many reasons that healthcare costs are higher for people with at-risk opioid use.

If prescribed, the medications themselves are costly. And opioid use is associated with a long list of other health problems, such as breathing problems, depression, infertility, poor digestion, and tooth decay, all of which can increase healthcare costs for employers.[6] Research suggests that family members of people with addiction tend to incur more health care costs as well, which employers often cover.[7],[8]


Employees with addictions change jobs more often.[9] Losing an employee and hiring someone new is expensive.

It costs you about one-fifth of a worker’s salary to replace her. Turnover is expensive because of productivity losses when someone leaves a job, the costs of hiring and training a new employee, and slower productivity until the new employee gets up to speed in his new job.[10]

Relationships and Company Culture

By definition, addiction affects social functioning and fulfillment of obligations. At work, addiction can hurt an employee’s productivity and ability to collaborate. This, in turn, affects other employees and the company on the whole.

Other employees are more likely to quit if they work with a person who has an addiction.[11]

The Rewards of Taking Proactive Steps to Address Opioids

Workplaces can prevent opioid addiction

Research shows that drug-free workplace policies and employee assistance programs work well to reduce prescription drug misuse, particularly among younger workers.[12]

Workplaces can help employees get back on their feet

When addiction treatment is required by employers, it is more likely to be successful. Pressure from the workplace helps people get into treatment earlier and gives them an ongoing reason to maintain recovery.[13]


SAMHSA Drug Free Workplace Toolkit:

Drug Free Workplace PA:

[1] Kaiser Health Tracking Poll (2016). Retrieved from:

[2]  Hasselt, M. V., Keyes, V., Bray, J., & Miller, T. (2015). Prescription Drug Abuse and Workplace Absenteeism: Evidence from the 2008–2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 30(4), 379-392.

[3] Birnbaum, H. G., White, A. G., Schiller, M., Waldman, T., Cleveland, J. M., & Roland, C. L. (2011). Societal Costs of Prescription Opioid Abuse, Dependence, and Misuse in the United States. Pain Med Pain Medicine, 12(4), 657-667.

[4] The Opioid Crisis Among the Privately Insured (2016). Retrieved from:

[5] The opioid crisis in America’s workforce (2016). Retrieved from: 

[6] Opioids Wreak Havoc on Workers’ Compensation Costs (2012). Retrieved from: update 8-31.pdf

[7] Ray, G. T., Mertens, J. R., & Weisner, C. (2007). The Excess Medical Cost And Health Problems of Family Members of Persons Diagnosed With Alcohol or Drug Problems. Medical Care, 45(2), 116-122.

[8] Smith, V. C., & Wilson, C. R. (2016). Families Affected by Parental Substance Use. Pediatrics, 138(2).

[9] Save Your Company Money By Assuring Accessing to Substance Abuse Treatment (2008). Retrieved from:

[10] There Are Significant Business Costs to Replacing Employees (2012). Retrieved from:

[11] Toxic Employees in the Workplace: Hidden Costs and How to Spot Them (2015). Retrieved from:

[12] Miller T, Novak SP, Galvin DM, Spicer RS, Cluff L, & Kasat S (2015). School and Work Status, Drug-Free Workplace Protections, and Prescription Drug Misuse Among Americans Ages 15–25. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 76(2), 195–203.

[13] Weisner, C., Lu, Y., Hinman, A., Monahan, J., Bonnie, R. J., Moore, C. D., & Appelbaum, P. S. (2009). Substance Use, Symptom, and Employment Outcomes of Persons With a Workplace Mandate for Chemical Dependency Treatment. Psychiatric Services, 60(5), 646–654.