When it comes to dealing with opioid addiction in the workplace, it’s not always immediately clear what’s needed most from HR: Is it compassion? A dose of tough love? A strategic focus on the hard facts?
However, when you start peeling back the layers of the issue, the answer emerges.
Opioid abuse statistics are unavoidable, but they bear repeating: In 2016, more Americans died from drug overdoses than car crashes, and — as reported in this Economist article — opioid addiction is likely one of the main factors contributing to a decline in overall life expectancy in the US, a rare trend in developed countries.
Some businesses are struggling to fill positions left vacant due to opioid addiction. In fact, the increase in opioid prescriptions could account for about 20% of the decline in labor force participation for men, and 25% for women, according to Princeton economist Alan Krueger.
While people struggling with drug dependencies are more likely to be out of work than those who are not, 75% of people with addiction issues are in the workforce, creating a roster of challenges for organizations of all sizes.
“The misuse and abuse of opioids could negatively impact employee productivity, workplace costs, the availability of labor, absenteeism and disability costs, workers’ compensation claims, as well as overall medical expenses,” stated Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health (NBGH), in this SHRM article.
The bottom line impacts on American employers are difficult to quantify, but one 2011 study (conducted several years before opioid-related deaths surged) revealed that the workplace costs of prescription opioid abuse, dependence, and misuse was $25.6 billion in 2007.
Evidently, this is not just a health crisis. It is a workplace crisis too.
Blending Compassion with Strategic Insight
For employers, dealing with the effects of drug abuse is not a simple process: The degree to which different pockets of your organization are affected will vary, and managers will have different personal preconceptions about addicts. To counter judgmental attitudes, it has long been accepted that addiction is a disease, rather than a moral failing, while some psychologists maintain that it is helpful to approach it as a type of compulsive behavior.
Indeed, it can be productive to view the issue through a compassionate lens. But at the same time, care alone will not help HR leaders tackle the problem methodically. Strategic action based on hard data is also required.
When tackling a complex problem like addiction, employers can take a page from the book of HR leaders who are using data to gather and act on specific insights: One HR analytics team at a growing city, for example, looked at safety incidents through different dimensions — such as job function, age, or tenure — providing a clear view of what action was needed to address potential issues.
Analyzing patterns related to addiction has limitations, and for a good reason: HR typically does not have access to the detailed health record of every employee, and drug testing can only be conducted under specific circumstances.
But it is possible to uncover general patterns while respecting the privacy of individual employees. This will enable you to determine where you are affected and where you need to focus your efforts in terms of intervention programs and managing skills shortages. Follow these steps to make data-driven decisions and tackle the opioid issue effectively:
Step #1: Measure the Impact with Absence Data
To start, gauge the impact of the problem within your organization using absence data. There is no point in rushing out with a strategy if you are not affected, or in applying across-the-board interventions if it is a pressing problem within a specific pocket of your organization.
To determine which employee populations are impacted, follow these steps:
1. Look at absence patterns over the past three years. Keep in mind that the typical worker misses an average of 10.5 days/year, while workers with pain medication use disorders miss an average of 29 days/year — nearly three times as much
2. Once you have zoned in on populations with the highest rates of change and/or more absences than the overall population, it is important to look at the nature of the absence days. People call in sick for a number of reasons, but with addiction, you will see certain patterns, such as:
- Periodic, short absences; and
- Increasing frequency of absences (for example, absences start happening once every month, once every two weeks, and then every week).
Obviously, it is not possible to pinpoint precisely who has a drug addiction problem based on this information, and HR can not ask someone if they have an addiction issue. The goal is to uncover populations who are likely affected.
Step #2: Have Fact-based Conversations
While the current spotlight on the opioid crisis in the media is raising awareness of the issue as a systemic problem, you may still have employees who hold certain prejudices towards people struggling with addiction. Data points that illustrate where addiction-related absences are impacting your organization will enable you to have conversations that are rooted in fact.
For example, if you see signs of addiction in the absenteeism data, you can then go to a supervisor and say: “You manage a population where we are seeing an increase spike in absences. Be aware that some of this may be due to addiction.” A manager will pay more attention if she understands that this problem is likely impacting her group than if she is simply presented with general statistics.
You can then provide information about the supports that are available and the organization’s related policies, and emphasize that the manager has a responsibility to handle it in a certain way, regardless of how she personally views addicts.
Beyond educating managers and determining which populations take priority, HR also has a role to play by working with their insurers or third-party administrators in helping alleviate the risks associated with opioid dependence. To achieve this outcome, I recommend reviewing the specific interventions — such as changing benefit designs — outlined in this SHRM article.
Step #3: Plan Ahead
Once you have started addressing the problem, the reality is that it will take time for the situation to improve. In areas where you currently appear to have addiction problems, you will likely experience many more months with higher levels of absences. These may be covered by sick leave or PTO benefits, but at the end of the day, the work still needs to be done so the business can survive.
To mitigate the risk of skills shortages, take a look at the populations you uncovered in step one. If you know where you are affected, you can then make more accurate projections about potential lost productivity, and your hiring plans can take this into account. To manage the gap, ask questions like: Do we over-hire for a period of time? Do we set up more casual contracts? Is overtime the answer? Do we need to add more people?
This is where it can be helpful to take a collaborative approach. When workforce planning is done in a vacuum, HR and senior leaders can miss crucial feedback from line managers and other subject matter experts about key skills gaps that are on the horizon.
Even without the opioid crisis, the current business climate can be unpredictable (business leaders have taken to using the term VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — to describe it) so you will need to plan on a frequent basis, and adjust as the situation changes.
Blending Empathy with Analysis so that Everybody Thrives
“Answers that have the force of emotion behind them, but are not based in fact, rarely provide strategic and effective solutions to nuanced problems,” writes research professor Brené Brown in her book, Braving the Wilderness.
Addressing opioid addiction can be an overwhelming process, one that is riddled with anger, sadness, and despair. The key for HR leaders looking to untangle the issue? Maintain a focus on the hard facts and the overall business goals, while understanding the needs of people struggling with addiction and their co-workers. When HR takes a fact-based approach to a complex issue, everybody benefits.
About the author: Ian Cook
Ian is an advocate for the crucial role that people play in helping companies thrive. His career has focused on enabling people, teams and companies to perform at their best. For the last 15 years Ian has been helping leaders elevate their HR strategies and programs through the effective use of people analytics. At Visier, Ian led the development of our market leading solution and is now focused on the overall strategy for the people analytics business.
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