Return-to-work programs: A critical next step to help employees recover from opioid addiction

Woman holding a tablet while a man next to her points to something on the screen

While driving home last week, I heard radio commentary about the opioid epidemic and how it’s affecting the US workforce. I wasn’t surprised to hear about its prevalence in the construction industry. It makes sense that workers with physically demanding jobs would be more likely to take powerful medications due to persistent and ongoing pain.

But I was surprised to hear that opioid addiction isn’t limited to the construction industry or others that require heavy labor. Its reach is much broader, ranging from jobsites to offices and crossing into a variety of sectors. According to a 2017 survey by the National Safety Council, it’s affecting nearly 70% of our workplaces. And it’s challenging organizations to think about how to address it within the workforce.

So, what can employers do to help?

While drug prevention programs, employee and manager education, and employee assistance programs should be part of an employer’s strategy, support shouldn’t stop there. There’s an equally important part of the process that should also be addressed. And that’s determining how to integrate employees back into the workplace after they’ve completed treatment. This is where return-to-work programs come into play.

A way back to work

Return-to-work programs can be critical to the recovery process, yet many organizations tend to overlook them.  The reasons vary, but it often comes down to zero-tolerance policies. Most employers will automatically terminate an employee who’s tested positive for drug use, regardless of whether the drug is medically prescribed or not.

But terminating an employee because of opioid addiction reduces the chances of the employee getting the treatment needed for recovery. And for the employer, they’ll not only lose the experience of such employees; they’ll have to replace them.  So, when you factor in that cost, which is often 1.5 times the employee’s salary, it’s clear that approach is unsustainable. Even more so when you consider the direct and indirect cost to hire, train and resume productivity for every employee who’s been terminated.

Having a return-to-work program can help you retain that experience and control those costs. It can also help keep employees accountable and boost morale, sending a signal that you care about employees’ wellbeing and want to play a supporting role during the recovery process.

So, when it comes to developing or updating your return-to-work program, what should you consider?

Here are six questions to ask:

  1. Does our HR policy outline how to safely and promptly return from a leave of absence?
  2. Are our job descriptions current and do they reflect the physical demands of the job or classify them as safety-sensitive?
  3. What tests (drug screening, functional capacity evaluation, fit for duty) are required before returning to work?
  4. Is it clear when our employees must notify their supervisors and/or HR managers of their expected return-to-work dates?
  5. Do our managers know how to handle any restrictions or limitations the employee may receive prior to returning to work?
  6. Are our managers prepared to answer questions from other team members when someone returns from a lengthy absence?

Final thoughts

Addressing opioid use in the workforce will require a multifaceted approach that will include education, prevention and treatment. But the road to recovery doesn’t end there. By offering return-to-work programs, employers can ensure their employees receive the treatment and support they need to recover from opioid addiction, while at the same time giving employees a second chance to resume their roles and have productive, long careers.  And that can be a critical and crucial step in the right direction.


 

Kristi Dalby Jones head shotKristi Dalby-Jones is Associate Director of Absence, Disability Management and Life at Willis Towers Watson.

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