Time for New Approaches to Employee Substance Abuse and Addiction?

Some employers offer addiction-treatment programs for qualified job candidates

By Joanne Sammer Jun 13, 2018
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Addiction and substance abuse can limit the pool of applicants for a job, increase health care costs and hurt employee productivity. Opioid addiction has been in the media spotlight lately, but alcohol and other prescription and over-the-counter drugs also cause problems in the workplace.

Some experts say that current approaches don't serve employees or employers well. "Policies around substance abuse often focus on restricting use and may lead to employees being fired," said Tabya Sultan, a consultant at HR consulting firm Nua Group in San Francisco. Employees may refuse to seek help because they're afraid of using employer-sponsored benefits, such as an employee assistance program (EAP), she said.

And employers struggling to attract and retain talent may be losing people who could benefit from addiction treatment and recovery and return to work as productive employees.

Belden Inc., a developer of signal transmission solutions based in St. Louis, was having difficulty hiring new machine operators for its plants due to the rising incidence of substance use in the labor pool. Over the past four years, an average of 10 percent of otherwise qualified candidates failed the company's required drug test, the last step in the hiring process. At times, the failure rate was as high as 15 percent.

With a large number of employees at its Richmond, Ind., plant approaching retirement, the company realized it had to bring in more qualified people to maintain its required workforce of 450. Operating in a small town of 36,000 people with an already small labor pool made the situation even more pressing.

Working with addiction experts and treatment providers, Belden developed an addiction-treatment program for job candidates. "If applicants fail the drug test, they have the option of entering the treatment program," said Ellen Drazen, a company spokeswoman. "Once they complete that initial assessment, those who are deemed to have a high probability of future substance abuse can choose a longer and more involved treatment program that's personalized for the individual."

Current employees can also volunteer to enter the program.

Once a job applicant completes the initial program, he or she begins working at the plant in a limited role, such as in data entry, until deemed ready to assume the machine-operator role for which they were hired.

Drug testing continues for up to 18 months after a worker completes the program. To avoid problems with medical privacy issues, Belden requires participants to sign a waiver that allows sharing of certain medical information. Employers interested in taking a similar approach should check with legal counsel about their responsibilities in this area.

[SHRM members-only: Managing Employee Assistance Programs]

Recovery-Support Benefits

A recent study conducted by the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker found that large employers spent $2.6 billion in 2016 to treat opioid addiction and overdoses, up from $300 million in 2004, a more than ninefold increase. The costs of addiction of all kinds in terms of lost productivity, absenteeism and workplace accidents is even greater and reach into the tens of billions of dollars, other studies have found.

At a minimum, employers can:

  • Talk to insurance carriers and pharmacy benefit managers about how to design a plan to help prevent prescription drug addiction.
  • Introduce prescription monitoring programs to make sure no worker is taking certain addictive medications for too long.

Many employer health plans now limit opioid prescriptions to seven days. However, even that may be too long. "We have been recommending that the first fill for opioids be limited to three days to prevent addiction," said Mary Kay O'Neill, a partner with Mercer in Seattle. "This is particularly important for people under age 26," she noted, given that teenagers and young adults may be more susceptible to addiction.

Another key issue is access to treatment. Does the plan's network have enough providers that offer addiction treatment, have the capacity to take on new patients and are located where employees live?

It's a good idea to work with insurance carriers or third-party administrators to identify centers of excellence for addiction recovery, and then cover travel expenses for patients who go there for treatment, Sultan said.

Finally, employers should ensure that their EAP vendors have the expertise and resources to provide long-term support for addiction recovery.

Don’t Overlook Alcohol Abuse

Most companies have yet to offer effective alcohol-abuse treatment options, although an estimated $82 billion in workplace productivity is lost annually because of workers' heavy drinking.

A recent survey by Annum Health, a provider of counseling and treatment for alcohol abuse, found that among a representative sample of 1,000 full-time employees:

  • 17 percent said they have a co-worker whose drinking habits have affected their ability to do their job well.
  • 12 percent helped with a co-worker's job responsibilities because of their alcohol use.

Treatment programs such as Annum's, which may be covered by group health insurance plans, include a personal coach, a physician, and a licensed therapist who work with patients to help set and maintain goals for modifying the behavior of those who drink heavily.


Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.


Related SHRM Articles:

Surgeon General Calls on Employers to Combat Opioid Epidemic, SHRM Online Benefits, April 2018

Accommodating Workers with a History of Substance Abuse, SHRM Online Employment Law, July 2017

Employers Take Steps to Address Opioid Crisis, SHRM Online Benefits, November 2017

Combatting the Prescription Drug Crisis, HR Magazine, October 2017

As Opioid Epidemic Rages, Worksite Policies Overlook Prescribed Drugs, SHRM Online Benefits, March 2017

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