I Lost My Brother To Opioid Addiction. Here’s How Employers Can Address The Crisis

One HR expert who suffered a heartbreaking loss explains how companies can help–and why action is long overdue.

I Lost My Brother To Opioid Addiction. Here’s How Employers Can Address The Crisis
[Photo: Adam Bendjaima via Unsplash]

Sunday, October 18, 2015, started out like any other day. Nothing unusual about the first hours of the morning. No sign that I’d soon get a phone call that would change my life. But then it came. “Your brother is in ICU,” was his former partner’s opening line. “We have no idea what’s happening. You need to call the hospital. They’ll only talk with immediate family.”


That call triggered a frantic series of events that led to my booking the first flight I could find to my hometown in Florida. It was on my layover in Newark that I got a second call, this one from my stepmother: “I’m so sorry. Kai is dead.”

Until that moment, I was someone who’d been lucky enough to be able to glance at the headlines from afar. I was dimly aware of the opioid epidemic’s magnitude, yet disconnected from its reality. In an instant, that was over. Today, when I read news stories about the crisis, I don’t see a “man in West Virginia,” I see Kai. I don’t see a “middle-aged mother of four from Rhode Island.” I see Kai. I don’t see “Prince.” I see Kai.

And I don’t see statistics anymore, either. I see my brother. The year he died, Kai was one of 91 Americans who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were dying each day from prescription opioids, heroin, and related drugs. Nearly two years later, that rate has worsened considerably. The fact that these are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and mothers and fathers we’re losing? I get that now.

So do employers–sort of. In a recent WebMD survey, seven out of 10 U.S. employers said they’re affected by opioid abuse, yet only 19% reported feeling “extremely prepared” to deal with it. A review of the available data placed the total cost of prescription opioid abuse to employers at some $25 billion–a decade ago, in 2007. Last year, the crisis was estimated to cost U.S. employers more than $16 billion in lost productivity alone, before accounting for employer medical costs and sick days ($18 million, by one recent measure), among other factors that are harder to quantify. In other words, companies have felt the strain from the opioid epidemic for a long time, but most still aren’t equipped to handle it.

Fortunately, some organizations are rethinking how to provide support, not just to employees who are struggling with opioid addiction, but to those whose loved ones are impacted, too.


Removing The Stigma

The stigma surrounding addiction makes the scope of the opioid epidemic seem narrower than it really is. And until lately, that has likely helped employers avoid addressing it even while shouldering the costs.

According to a recent review of over 20 million private insurance claims by the doctor-booking platform Amino, 241,000 patients were diagnosed with opioid use disorder in 2012. By 2016, that number had climbed sixfold to 1.4 million. As treatments have risen, so have fatalities. Over 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, up 21% from the previous year. Those numbers may actually be undercounted, since many patients don’t want their treatments flagged in their medical records, and many coroners and medical examiners  record thousands of opioid overdoses as “unspecified.” Even so, last year saw the largest annual jump in addiction fatalities ever recorded.

With the stigma keeping these numbers in the abstract realm of statistics for many people, workplaces haven’t been pressured for support by employees as they might have expected to be otherwise. Stigma causes addicts to stay silent and resist getting help, and it leads families to treat addiction as a dark secret. Yet the silence is deafening and damaging. Addicts keep their struggles bottled up until it’s too late; secrets tear families apart, and lead to lingering “what if” questions that inflict pain far beyond the individual addict.

I recently spoke with a friend who works in HR (she asked to remain anonymous, citing this very stigma) whose sister has battled heroin addiction for years. The experience took a heavy emotional toll on her and began to impact her work. She eventually confided in her manager, who suggested taking advantage of the company’s employee assistance program (EAP). Through this company benefit, she was able to speak with a certified counselor who helped her cope with supporting a loved one through an addiction battle.

My friend told me this made a huge difference for her, both personally and professionally. Not only did it help her manage the stress of having an addict in her family, it also strengthened her connection with her employer and manager. But because my friend worked in HR to begin with, she may have had more knowledge about the resources available to her than her colleagues in, say, accounting. And that’s part of the problem.


What’s In An EAP?

If the stigma surrounding opioid addiction keeps employees from knowing about their companies’ EAPs and taking advantage of them, it’s those very same programs that can and should be used to combat the stigma itself. So if your company offers an EAP, chances are it could be doing a better job of promoting it.

Just letting your employees know that there are resources available to them–ideally including grief and support counseling services–can help lighten an enormous and unacknowledged emotional burden. But even a more limited EAP can create a crucial safe space within the workplace that may not exist in employees’ lives anywhere else. There are many resources available to help employers set up EAPs of their own. The Society of Human Resources Management offers a free EAP toolkit with information on developing and managing employee assistance programs, including addiction support. The Office of Personnel Management also offers a history and breakdown of different forms of EAPs, the business case for providing them, and resources for getting started.

EAPs can be run in-house or outsourced to third-party vendors, either in part or in full. While the delivery methods vary by company, a strict adherence to confidentiality is crucial across the board; it’s as essential to any program’s success as an effective marketing push that lets employees know that those resources exist in the first place.

Other Ways To Support Employees

The full impact of addiction in the workplace is hard to measure. Every individual addict is connected to a web of those who are affected by their addiction. So beyond setting up an EAP, there are a few additional steps employers can take to support everyone who may be directly or indirectly impacted:

  • Make sure your HR department and/or medical benefits include addiction, rehabilitation, and counseling services for addicts and their families.
  • Train your managers about the impact of addiction, including how to support their employees who may be battling the disease or whose loved ones are.
  • Be flexible with grief and support leave so employees feel encouraged to take time off to care for loved ones and themselves.
  • Make sure you advertise any addiction support and grief counseling services covered in your health benefits–too many employees don’t realize when those resources are there. Then re-advertise those programs again and again, keeping them front of mind for employees.
  • Understand how addiction alters families. It’s never an issue that’s resolved in a moment in time. There are usually lingering emotional effects that employees may struggle with for years, or added time obligations due to changes in childcare responsibilities, and so on. Patience and flexibility over the long term really do matter.

Sadly, the opioid epidemic shows no signs of slowing, so it’s long past due for employers to adapt to this new reality. There are probably many more employees who are heartbroken and struggling with this issue inside your organization than you realize. Doing your part to acknowledge that is the first step in offering help.

About the author

Lars Schmidt is the founder of Amplify, an HR executive search and consulting firm that helps companies like Hootsuite, NPR, and SpaceX navigate the future of work. He is also the cofounder of the HR Open Source initiative.