The Impact of Opioids in the Workforce

Massachusetts Health Policy Forum brings together diverse state stakeholders at November 2018 event

April 02, 2019

By Hillary Richards

One million people in the United States are not working due to opioid use disorder (OUD), while 55 percent of people with an opioid addiction are employed. These stark numbers reflect the negative impact of the opioid epidemic on the U.S. workforce, which results in lost productivity and increased health care costs. The opioid epidemic devastates individuals and families and triggers severe economic consequences at the national, state and local levels. In Massachusetts, the annual impact of prescription opioid misuse on employers, employees and dependents is about $1.7 billion.

That’s what spurred the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum to bring together 200 health policy leaders in Massachusetts to discuss “Opioids in the Workforce” in November 2018. This forum and accompanying issue brief were produced in partnership with the Brandeis-Harvard NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) Center and Opioid Policy Research Collaborative, with funding from RIZE Massachusetts. The issue brief was written by Institute for Behavioral Health Director Constance Horgan, PhD student Heidi Sulman, visiting research scholar Nancy Lane, and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum, Michael Doonan, PhD’02.

Constance Horgan, Behavioral Health Concentration chair
Constance Horgan

“Heller is a leader in behavioral health research and it was a pleasure to work with our partners on how Massachusetts employers can help address the opioid crisis,” says Horgan. “The issue brief quantifies the problem and provides examples of how employers can help prevent substance use disorder, facilitate access to evidence-based treatment and support successful recovery.”

Heller researchers found that employers vary widely in their awareness of opioid use and addiction. The incidence of OUD also varies and can be especially high in physically demanding and stressful industries such as construction and fishing. The report and presentation suggest ways for employers to work with employees and health plans to better understand, prevent and treat OUD. Primary prevention includes injury reduction, while secondary prevention includes appropriate treatment and pain management when injuries occur. In addition, employees need seamless access to recovery and evidence-based treatment for OUD. Finally, the report provides examples of employers creating recoveryfriendly workplaces. This includes reducing stigma and allowing time for recovery, such as time to attend recovery-related appointments.

Michael Doonan
Michael Doonan

At the forum, Horgan and Lane presented the research findings and offered recommendations. They were joined by the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Health, Dr. Monica Bharel, who outlined what Massachusetts is doing to address OUD at the state level. The panel also included J.J. Bartlett, president of the Fishing Partnership Support Services, who spoke about a range of innovations being undertaken by the fishing industry in Massachusetts to support their members. The research panel was followed by a stakeholder panel, which discussed practical action steps employers can use to implement some of the strategies.

“While much has been written about the opioid crisis, less was known about the impact on employers, employees and their dependents,” says Doonan. “With support from RIZE Massachusetts and the deep expertise in behavioral health at Heller, this is a great example of how research can have a direct impact on people’s lives.”