Employers and Addiction: Why 2016 Was a Gamechanger

It's been a big year for the movement to spread awareness of addiction and push for more effective, more accessible prevention, treatment, and recovery services. And it wasn't just those personally affected by addiction or healthcare providers that were talking about it. Employers are increasingly taking notice that addiction has grave consequences for both their employees and the bottom line, and recognizing the desperate need for innovative solutions. When we talk about addictive behaviors with employers, many of their concerns are the same deep-seated challenges faced by the general public as well. There’s a stigma and shame around addictive behavior. There’s a lack of preventative intervention. Existing treatment options are expensive and ineffective. Yes, we nod our heads. Yes. While these issues have been a longstanding battle, 2016 threw some new kinks into the old machine: state legalization of marijuana, and the prescription opioid addiction crisis. These rising challenges are a juxtaposition taking employers by surprise: an illicit drug gone legal, and a legal drug turned into a costly epidemic.

Existing workplace drug policies were shaped by law, complying with measures to keep people from using marijuana as an illicit drug. Now that those laws are changing, state by state, employers find themselves facing new conundrums. How should old policies and programs be adjusted? How are changes best communicated to employees? Where does addiction fall in all this? As HR teams shakily navigate this new legal landscape, court cases are sprouting up like, well weeds. Medical marijuana use is a particularly dicey issue.

The opioid epidemic stands in stark contrast to the legalization of marijuana. Prescription painkillers, as an entirely legal drug, have exploded into a devastating epidemic of addiction. This leaves employers, although ill-prepared and ill-positioned to handle the situation,  bearing the brunt of financial consequences. The costs of opioid addiction in related healthcare expenses, accidental asset losses, and missed work are estimated to be as gigantic as $442 billion a year. Employers are scrambling to move from a reactive stance to a proactive one with a wide range of initiatives, including preventative employee education, awareness training, drug testing, and prescription restrictions and prescription management programs. Like medical marijuana, addressing prescription drugs is a legal minefield, with various lawsuits already making headlines.

As employers and others affected by addictive behaviors grapple with these complex issues, we see a few truths emerge about drugs and addiction. Drugs are powerful, whether they’re prescribed or not. Whether they’re legal or illegal. Addiction is also powerful, and can happen to anyone. Celebrities and your cubicle neighbor. Finally, law and policy simply aren’t enough to tackle the issue of addiction, not in preventing or treating it. The need for a more compassionate approach and more effective, accessible help for addiction remains the same and as urgent as ever.