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6 Shocking Facts About Employee Opioid Abuse You Need To Know

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Before reading this we invite you to take Quizzify's Opioids Awareness Quiz, and share it with the top executives, HR administrators, and wellness champions within your organization.

What is your most pressing employee health issue today?

It’s not cholesterol, weight, sitting, or probably anything else you are prioritizing. Instead, by far the major health menace facing your employee population is the opioid epidemic — which, according to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Kelly, has reached “DEFCON 5.”

DEFCON 5 is right. There is roughly one opioids prescription written for every adult in the US, and the rate of people admitting to misusing opioids obtained through illicit means is estimated at 3.5%, which makes it higher than alcoholism and roughly comparable (in the employed population) to diabetes.

Here are five things you, as administrators, need to know:

  1. Opioid abuse has jumped 500% in the last 7 years.

  2. The price per milligram of morphine-equivalent paid by employees has declined about 75% in the last 15 years. This is due to more generous coverage (by you!), more use of the formulary and most distressingly, more pills per prescription. There is virtually no other product whose use doesn’t increase as the price falls. And there are very few products whose price falls that much.

  3. The $78-billion all-in cost in the US of opioid use, abuse, and treatment works out to about $756 per employee per year. To put that in perspective, that’s about ten times what you spend on heart attacks and diabetes events (not that those aren't important too!).

  4. Workers compensation claims costs are ten times higher when long-acting opioids are involved.

  5. Your ER visit claims coded to opioid issues have probably increased threefold since 2003.

(Yes, we know, that is only five facts and we promised six. Keep reading...)


How do you solve an opioid problem within your organization?

You can’t look to your wellness vendor to solve this problem. If biometric screens included drug-testing, the employees who need to submit to them wouldn’t. (The legality of that would be very questionable anyway.) Asking a health risk assessment question: “Are you addicted to painkillers or heroin?” would generate — at best — the same level of candor wellness vendors observe when they ask about drinking and smoking. You can’t address an addiction that an addict won’t admit to having in the first place.

However, a health literacy vendor – ideally, Quizzify – can raise awareness of the hazards of opioids in your employee population. Because health literacy quizzes don’t require personal health information, there is no opportunity to lie, no one is being singled out, and no one needs to worry that the results aren’t confidential. It’s simply, purely education. The answers are pure facts. (And in our case, have passed review by doctors at Harvard Medical School.)

For employees not already using pain meds:

Firstly, employees who are not currently using prescription painkillers need to be made aware of the risks of starting. If there is one health literacy risk worthy of attention — meaning one risk where curing a knowledge deficit (as opposed to trying to change behavior, as with smoking cessation or eating habits) matters — it’s in opioid addiction prevention.

  • It can take as little as three days of use before the first signs of addiction occur. To put this into perspective, even something as minor as prophylactic wisdom teeth removal (not generally recommended by Quizzify anyway) can generate 3 days of painkiller medication.

  • If you use a 10-day supply as directed, you have a 20% risk of becoming a long-term user.

  • Dose matters. A lot. A high dose for a short duration is 40 times as likely to cause an opioid use disorder than a low dose.

  • Employees’ kids are taking prescription pain meds in numbers far exceeding those of previous generations.This is because they believe them to be safer than street drugs, and easier to get hold of (often from the parents’ medicine cabinets).

For employees already using pain meds:

As mentioned, the percentage of employees using pain meds, 4.6% on average, is roughly the same as diabetes. The cost of treating them – and productivity losses (not to mention the possibility to pilferage or other crimes to support the habit) – is much higher than diabetes.

Further, employees are unlikely to seek help on their own. Use of medications designed to treat opioid addiction has grown only about a fifth as fast as opioid use itself. And many employees either don’t know where to turn, or are concerned that their EAP conversations are not confidential. Fear of job loss and/or having a criminal record also impede the likelihood of seeking help. Your health literacy vendor should be able to create the education for you to overcome these natural impediments.

Quizzify's opioid abuse education includes:

  • Specific contact information for the EAP.

  • “What if I think a coworker is opioid-dependent?”

  • “Are there resources for family members?”

  • “Can I get or renew pain meds from the on-site clinic?”

  • “Is opioid treatment a covered benefit?”

  • “Will human resources find out I am getting opioid treatment?”

  • "What are signs that my children are abusing painkillers?"


What can you, as administrators, do to help?

Your budget allocation for health and wellness should be in proportion to the priorities for health and wellness. And as of now, you are likely spending less on educating employees on opioids (not to mention on other health literacy imperatives) than on, for example, weighing them.

Likewise, employees are probably spending more time figuring out how to cheat on their weigh-ins than on understanding the hazards of opioid use. It’s time to reconfigure these priorities. Teach employees how to avoid, manage and treat opioid addiction before it is too late.

And by “too late” we mean #6 of the facts you need to know:

Far exceeding diabetes and heart attacks, overdoses are the leading cause of death for employees under 50.


Now you can take the Opioids Awareness Quiz again. Your score will increase substantially -- but not as substantially as your awareness that something needs to be done, now. Quizzify offers educational quizzes about opioids for employees. That might be a good place to start.


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