The United States is in the midst of an opioid epidemic — one paralleled in the rise of opioid abuse among U.S. workers. In 2018, the likelihood of dying from an opioid overdose was 1 in 96, compared to a 1 in 103 chance of dying in a car crash. At the same time, 75% of employers say their workplaces have been directly affected by opioid abuse.
Opioid abuse is a health and a safety issue that can cause impairment and increase the risk of workplace accidents. Spotting the signs of opioid addiction is a key first step in ensuring a safe working environment for your union members.
The Signs of Addiction
The signs of addiction aren't always distinctive. In general, keep an eye out for members who aren't acting like themselves.
Doctors prescribe opioids to patients to help relieve pain, such as after a dental procedure, injury, surgery or chronic condition diagnosis. This class of drugs is highly addictive because they block pain and trigger dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the body. When a person can't stop themselves from using a drug or use more than the recommended dose, they are considered to be addicted.
Signs of opioid addiction can be physical, psychological or behavioral. Possible symptoms include poor coordination, nausea, vomiting, physical agitation, drowsiness, slurred speech and shallow breathing. Someone experiencing opioid withdrawal may have diarrhea and spend longer than usual in the bathroom. They might also make poor decisions, feel less motivated, become irritable, have mood swings or be depressed.
People addicted to drugs also often change their behavior. Possible behavior-related signs of addiction include:
- Changing or avoiding friends
- Declining social activities and spending more time alone
- Neglecting person hygiene
- Eating noticeably more or less than usual
- Missing meetings or appointments
- Showing up late for work
- Having money problems
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) also shared 11 signs to look for when diagnosing a substance use disorder. According to the APA's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," a person must have displayed at least two of the 11 signs within the past year to be diagnosed with a drug problem.
How You Can Help
As a union leader, you can help address this growing epidemic at work.
First and foremost, if you suspect a member has overdosed, call 911 immediately. A person who has overdosed could be unconscious, limp, pale and breathing shallowly. Even if they've regained consciousness or taken a dose of naloxone, a drug that counters the effects of opioid overdose, they may still need emergency medical care.
However, that's a reaction to a single overdose. If you want to encourage a healthier relationship with opioids throughout your membership, try the following approaches.
- Train your members. Start by teaching members to spot the signs of opioid abuse. Consider discussing the topic during a union meeting, sharing information about the epidemic in a union newsletter or connecting them with online resources.
- Examine drug policies. Strong drug policies can also help. If your organization doesn't have one — or if it hasn't been updated in years — write clear workplace guidelines on medications.
- Focus on assistance programs. For members returning to work after an illness, the right support can make a huge difference. The right support could mean the difference between a smooth return and a descent into drug misuse. Make sure members are aware of the resources available to them and know how to access them.
- Approach members with kindness. Because of the stigma attached to addiction, people with addictions may fear others will accuse or belittle them. If you believe a member has a problem, address the situation with compassion.
- Know when to escalate. If a member's problem worsens, consider the best way to get them help quickly. That may include contacting their supervisor or a family member. If they become a danger to others, consider whether time away from work and placement in a treatment program might be the best option.
For more information, the National Safety Council provides a free prescription drug employer kit.
When you arm yourself with the information and tools to help members who may be struggling with addiction, you're helping ensure the workplace is a safe and productive place for everyone.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.