Worried Woman with an Opiod Prescription Pill

Despite stereotypes of drug addicts being unemployed or underemployed, many opioid abusers go to work every day. In fact, more than 200,000 employees across the state suffer from substance abuse, according to Mike Thibideau, director of Indiana Workforce Recovery. This impacts about 80 percent of Hoosier businesses, according to data from the Wellness Council of Indiana. 

“There are 28 million Americans in long-term successful recovery from substance use disorder,” said Thibideau, who is in long term recovery form substance use disorder himself. “I would venture to say that everybody knows somebody [in recovery] and they just don’t know. I knew a whole bunch of people that, until I had this position, I didn’t even know they were in recovery, and I was in recovery at the same time that they were.”

Opioid abuse doesn’t just affect someone’s personal life, it also impacts his or her job performance and the employer’s bottom line as it leads to increases in worker’s compensation, absenteeism, health care expenses as well as lost productivity. The opioid crisis has cost the state $43 billion since 2003, according to a report by the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. Annually, opioids cost the state $4.3 billion, according to Jim McClelland, Indiana’s executive director of Drug Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement.

Business owners shouldn’t bury their heads in the sand and pretend the crisis won’t affect their employees. Besides the financial burden of the opioid crisis, ignoring the problem could mean employers overlook employees who are suffering. Many employees with a substance abuse problem could be high functioning and able to hide their condition, said Jennifer Pferrer, executive director of the Wellness Council of Indiana.

Thibideau agreed. During his own struggle with substance abuse, Thibideau, who worked for a different employer at the time, said his job performance declined and he did only the bare minimum. Thibideau kept up appearances, but his employer paid the price.

Employers who recognize opioids not only affect their employees’ personal lives, but their lives inside the workplace, can do their part to help by implementing clear and understandable drug policies. While the policies may include punitive consequences for employees found abusing drugs on the job, the best policies also offer treatment options. Whether employers realize it or not, they often play a larger role than friends or family in helping someone seek treatment. About 20.5% of substance abusers don’t seek help out of fear of their employer’s reaction, so second chance programs that allow people to keep their position if they seek treatment can foster change in employees. Thibideau’s former workplace’s policy and willingness to assist him find help allowed him to start his recovery journey.

“I had a very supportive employer who helped me get well,” Thibideau said. 

While paying for rehabilitation programs might sound expensive, Pferrer said it is often cheaper than firing an employee and searching for a replacement. Paying for rehabilitation programs is more compassionate than no-tolerance drug policies where employers immediately fire people, she added.

“Let’s think about the ramifications of that,” Pferrer said. “You’re leaving a job open that, in this age of low unemployment, is very hard to fill. You’re firing someone who needs help and by letting them go their income is going away, their insurance is going away, access to care is very, very limited, and it becomes this whole spiral effect.”


Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.

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