Workplaces Are an Important Setting for Substance Misuse Prevention Programs

Working side-by-side with people who are struggling with drug misuse


Whether you work in an office job, retail, the service industry, or education, the person working beside you may have a substance use disorder.

It should not be surprising to know that of the millions of adults struggling with drug use, more than half are employed. About 7.2 million U.S. workers (over the age of 18) reported misusing an opioid at some point in 2016, and 66 percent of adults who are currently misusing opioids have jobs.

While certainly not all employees who misuse will experience an overdose, or even develop an opioid use disorder, a significant amount of these individuals will battle addiction. Some may even die while working. The number of workers who died from a drug overdose while on the job increased 32 percent over one year, from 165 in 2015 to 217 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics*.

While not everyone on the job is misusing prescription drugs—just under 5 percent of U.S. workers reported misusing prescription opioids—all workers have family, friends, or people in their communities with substance use issues. Employees can transfer knowledge and skills they gain through workplace-based programming to their family members and communities.

RTI’s Workplace Health and Safety Team has been advocating for more workplace-based prevention. Workplaces are a promising setting for prevention efforts because they reach a large percentage of the population and have the potential to connect employees and their families with health resources and other support services.

A strong business case can be made for employers to implement programs because they pay a high price in lost productivity due to prescription opioid misuse—estimated at $26 billion annually. Workers who misuse opioids are also more likely to miss work days than those who are not misusing and are at increased risk for accidents and injuries.

The National Safety Council’s 2016 survey of 500 nationally representative employers found that 70 percent of employers were impacted by prescription drug misuse, including 15 percent who reported that opioid use caused or nearly caused a workplace injury and 10 percent who had workers overdose. Yet, 78 percent of companies surveyed reported feeling only somewhat or not well prepared to deal with prescription drug misuse issues.

The survey highlighted an important, and in some cases, fatal, gap in employers’ preparedness to handle a problem they know they have.

Work and health are inextricably linked for the 60 percent of U.S. adults who are employed. Job requirements, as well as the physical and social work environment influence employees’ physical and mental health. Some evidence suggests that comprehensive workplace health promotion programs can improve employee well-being and productivity. Opioid misuse prevention can be integrated into the workplace health promotion programs that are currently offered by about half of U.S. employers. RTI is working with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to develop an interactive toolkit to help employers address substance misuse on multiple levels. The toolkit seeks to help employers:

  • Educate employees about prescription risks and alternative treatments
  • Provide employees with tools to support their coworkers
  • Reduce workplace stressors and preventing workplace injuries and illnesses that can lead to initial opioid use
  • Implement policies and procedures to discourage substance misuse
  • Reduce stigma
  • Promote a culture of health and social connection within organizations.

The toolkit is expected to be ready in late 2018. In the meantime, if you would like more information, please contact Laurie Cluff.