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Published in Health Care

Why employers are reaching out to help employees struggling with opioid addiction

BY Sunday, November 10, 2019 03:33pm

 For the past three years, roughly 6,000 employees across the U.S. for Grand Rapids-based furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. have had free access to an online health portal to treat addiction.

Through a program developed by Workit Health, employees with substance use disorders — or people helping family members with the same problem — have access to online modules and a recovery coach. Opioid addiction is one of several tracks in which participants can seek treatment.

Access is free for employees and entirely confidential — Steelcase doesn’t know specifically who uses it, but most recently the program has served between 160 and 180 employees. A company official says the move was focused on helping employees with “work-life balance.”

“We want to make sure employees with adversity issues they’re struggling with are supported to keep attention as much as possible on the work they’re doing,” said Gary Strehlke, Steelcase’s wellbeing navigator. “We look at (these issues) as an inhibitor of workplace performance.”

Strehlke said the company for years has supported employees through grief or loss programs, elder care and smoking cessation, to name a few.

“This was a natural fit as the opioid epidemic started to grow,” he said.

At a time when many employers still see opioid addiction among employees as not their problem, Steelcase and others across the state are taking a proactive approach to treatment. Although substance use treatment is usually covered under health insurance, a growing number of companies offer additional resources like access to recovery coaches, or have participated in distributing Naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug.

Indeed, more employers are seeing it as their problem. Recent studies show that the opioid crisis is having widespread economic implications stemming from the loss of productivity. By not addressing the issue among employees or taking a hard line against opioid use, companies in Michigan will struggle to find talent to fill vacant positions. And providing access to treatment for people in recovery can provide long-term cost savings for employers.

“Not to mention it’s actually just kind,” said Dr. Corey Waller, principal at Lansing-based Health Management Associates Inc. 

Waller, a former president of the Michigan Society of Addiction Medicine, travels the country to assess hospitals and health care systems, routinely finding inadequate approaches to dealing with the crisis because of the fear of offering treatment programs and a “lack of understanding of the disease.”

Reaching out

Pam Beane, director of substance use services at HealthWest and chairperson of the Muskegon County Opiate Task Force, said substance use among employees can drain productivity because of absences and a lack of focus.

“Given the labor shortage across the state, it would be in an employer’s best interest to address substance use concerns in the workplace in a therapeutic manner, offering coaching, counseling and necessary services to support the employee on a path toward recovery,” Beane said. “Unfortunately, many employers treat substance use in the workplace in a more punitive manner, which does not support the employee to overcome their addiction.”

Studies have pegged the opioid crisis as costing the U.S. economy tens to hundreds of billions of dollars a year. The White House Council of Economic Advisers recently reported that the opioid epidemic cost the U.S. economy $696 billion in 2018 and more than $2.5 trillion between 2015 and 2018, accounting for additional societal costs related to premature deaths.

A report by the University of Chicago that was released by the National Safety Council and the nonprofit Shatterproof estimated annual costs of substance use disorder at nearly $450 million. The report notes that 75 percent of adults with substance use disorder are in the workforce, making up about 15.6 million working Americans. For employers, these workers have more than three times the health care costs of average workers and result in nearly $2,500 in missed work.

Dr. Michelle Kuster, president and executive director of Ludington-based Connexion Point Inc., leads a local treatment and recovery program that helps employers better understand addiction and how it affects employees. Employers also hire recovering individuals through Connexion Point and can have access to recovery coaches.

Metalworks Inc., a Ludington-based furniture manufacturer, reached out to Connexion Point two years ago and has hired employees through its program. Kuster said about six other companies also hire through her program.

“As an employer, addiction in your community leads to unhealthy people who cannot seek a job or fail to show up to their job daily,” Kuster said in an email. “Building a community in recovery is about understanding how impactful resources like this to employers or other members of our community can make us a healthier community when it comes to the disease of addiction.”

Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said members increasingly are concerned about the opioid crisis.

“We’re seeing a desire to focus — health care has always been very important to employers, but a re-emphasis and focus on mental health issues, including addiction and treating it like a disease, is the best way to approach the issue,” Johnston said.

He echoed concerns about the opioid epidemic’s effect on the talent shortage and labor participation rates. 

A 2017 report from Princeton University notes: “Labor force participation has fallen more in areas where relatively more opioid pain medication is prescribed, causing the problem of depressed labor force participation and the opioid crisis to become intertwined.”

“If we can better address the opioid crisis and its impacts on West Michigan, it will have a big impact on our labor force,” Johnston said.

He and others tracking the issue say employers can enact policies or offer services to employees that help address the stigma around opioid addiction.

“Just understanding how intertwined addiction is with any industry that has to hire and maintain employees on a long-term basis, you have to recognize it’s a big risk to not step out and get help,” said Waller of Health Management Associates. “People in recovery work as good as anyone in these jobs. If not, they’re at risk to themselves and the company.”

In particular, companies that are self-insured may find themselves “on the hook” to pay medical bills associated with overdoses or other injuries, Waller said.

Stigma persists

Employers and health professionals say the stigma attached to opioid addiction — and the treatment to address it — remains a barrier to openly addressing the problem.

Steelcase’s Strehlke said unlike other well-being-related services the company provides, the Workit Health program isn’t widely marketed internally and isn’t discussed much among employees, who tend to seek it out themselves.

“Workit Health and addiction services is kind of hush-hush, which is OK,” he said. “I think it’s the stigma attached to addiction, and the fear or implications of bringing that information to the workplace. It is a touchy subject, particularly in a professional environment.”

Waller said perpetuating the stigma and keeping addiction in the dark “only decreases chances of (employees) getting help.” Without that help, employers may face greater long-term costs.

Strehlke agreed. 

“As a company, you can try to ignore the problem and hope people are finding treatment on their own to get what they need,” he said. “Or you can offer a service like Workit Health and help give them a first step. If we can assist them with addiction, get them back to work and performing, hopefully in the long run it will cost us less.”

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