Opioid Misuse: The Hidden Stigma in Workplace Culture

opioid misuse in workplace


With widespread attention, the opioid epidemic is not anything new to the workplace. However, knowledge does not equate to being prepared as an employer. The clinical aspects of opioid misuse can make it challenging for an employer to identify the symptoms and once the issue is identified, knowing the best way to proceed. According to the National Safety Council, opioids have impacted over 75% of employers in the United States, but only 17% feel prepared to deal with it (Valentic, 2019). That is an alarming statistic. Therefore, it is important to discuss the symptoms of opioid misuse and how an employer can create a “safe” workplace culture for their employees.

Signs of Opioid Misuse

Opioid use can start harmlessly to alleviate pain through a medical prescription, however, the downside is that these drugs also have a high potential for addiction. The employee may be unaware of the influence the drug is having on his/her health and may not recognize changes in his/her own behavior. In addition, the symptoms may not be as obvious to someone else, making it difficult for an employer or coworker to identify the safety risk at hand.

Educating workers to recognize symptoms of opioid use is one way to create a safer work environment. Some workers can seem fully functional and still be under the influence of opioids. Typical symptoms of opioid use include dilated pupils, difficulty focusing, slowed or slurred speech, mood swings and red eyes. Implementing a program of reasonable suspicion training for supervisors and employees can help combat substance misuse in the workplace and build a culture of safety.

Creating a “Safe” Workplace Culture

Creating a safe workplace begins with creating an environment of trust for the employees. Unfortunately, identifying opioid misuse is often accompanied by a stigma of drug addiction and potential job loss. This makes employees less apt to communicate about experiencing pain, injuries, or the use of medication for pain relief. According to Shaw, Roelofs, and Punnett (2020), this remains a safety challenge for fear of retaliation upon exposure of opioid use.

To combat this culture crisis, creating a workplace culture focused on health and well-being at work is an important starting point. This should include having a safe place to share physical and mental challenges an employee may face. Also, incorporating HR policies that deliver resources to deal with opioid use and misuse can also alleviate stress for employees working while under the influence of opioids. Currently, it is reported that although 80% of employers recognize the seriousness of the opioid crisis, only 21% have added programs to help manage prescription opioid use (Shaw, Roelofs, & Punnett, 2020). These programs can help guide employers and employees on addressing opioid use and increase the effectiveness of a safe working environment.

Safety-sensitive employers are often reticent about including programs for education and limitations for opioid use as part of their workplace education programs. However, these programs are aimed to deliver a proactive approach to helping employees trust, reach out for help when needed, and work safely. As with any type of addiction, there is always the chance of relapse. However, it is now that employers need to reach out and start the process to give employees a place to feel safe talking about their opioid use.

If you an employer that is having an issue with opioid use in the workplace, please reach out to American Substance Abuse Professionals (ASAP). We can support you on building voluntary self-referral, second chance programs and aftercare monitoring, as well as promote employee awareness on substance use. Call ASAP at 410-366-3899 x607. Work Safely.

Shaw, W. S., Roelofs, C., & Punnett, L. (2020). Work environment factors and prevention of opioid-related deaths. American Journal of Public Health, 110(8), 1235–1241. https://doi-org.ezproxy.umgc.edu/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305716

Valentic, S. (2019). The opioid dilemma: Although three-quarters of U.S. employers have experienced some effects from the opioid crisis, most are not prepared. It’s time to step up. EHS Today, 12(3), 32.


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