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Nationwide CEO: Addiction Is a Workforce Issue. Here’s How Business Leaders Can Address It

November 13, 2019, 5:30 PM UTC
Opioid Memorial DC
ASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11: Cassie Spodak takes a picture of a memorial that consists of 22,000 engraved white pills that represent the face of someone lost to a prescription opioid overdose in 2015, at the Ellipse at President's Park, on April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Every day, an average of 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids.

The economic impact of prescription opioid abuse alone was a staggering $179.4 billion in 2018, according to a recent report by the Society of Actuaries. That includes $72.6 billion in mortality costs, $60.4 billion in health care costs, $26.5 billion in lost productivity, and $10.9 billion in criminal justice system costs.

Clearly, the opioid addiction crisis is too large for any one entity or sector to combat alone—it impacts every segment of society. So, a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work. 

Now is the time for business leaders to stand up and take an active role in addressing this epidemic. By joining forces with public health officials, elected leaders, and law enforcement, businesses can help enhance locally-tailored solutions in communities across the country. 

Simply put, addiction is a workforce issue. If business leaders can intervene and get people the help they need while keeping them employed, it could make a huge difference in their recovery. It can save costs associated with health care and lost productivity. And helping people through an addiction crisis may create some of a company’s most loyal and productive workers down the road.

To do so, business leaders need to first assess the impact of prescription opioid abuse within their own companies. To help companies understand the cost of substance use in their workplace, the National Safety Council offers an online calculator tool, which considers a company’s employee base, industry, and state to estimate the related workplace costs. For example, according to the calculator, a retailer in California with 100 employees would lose nearly $37,000 a year due to substance abuse issues.

Business leaders need to also shift their mindset about how to respond to addiction in the workplace. While a one-chance-only policy may seem logical, it may actually be more costly than other alternatives in terms of training new workers and lost productivity. When employers embrace the reality that addiction is a disease, not a character flaw, it opens up new possibilities. Creating second chance policies that provide employees access to counseling and recovery resources, and proactively educating about the dangers of prescription opioids are all ways businesses can make a difference. Communicating to employees about the dangers of addiction and available resources can help make workers feel more comfortable to seek the help they need.

And it’s good for the bottom line, too. For each employee seeking treatment, employers can save almost $2,607 per person each year, according to joint analysis from the National Safety Council, NORC at the University of Chicago, and nonprofit Shatterproof. 

Additionally, businesses should actively engage with community stakeholders outside the walls of their company on this issue. Public health experts in many communities across the country already have strategic plans in place locally to respond to the opioid crisis, and are looking for any help they can muster to address this crisis. Working with these leaders to identify specific ways your organization can contribute to a community-wide solution can help the community better tackle the addiction problem in a more meaningful way. Explore if there is a particular part of the local strategy that needs additional resources and consider how to help fill a specific gap. Once that opportunity is identified, target resources and manpower to help educate the public, reduce addiction, and meet other local objectives.

Businesses can also engage by offering up professional capabilities and resources to enhance their community’s response to the opioid crisis. Offering expertise, funding, or other resources may augment public sector and government efforts to confront the prescription opioid crisis. For example, a company’s human resources team may be able to share best practices and resources to help other companies adequately and effectively address addiction in the workplace. From a communications perspective, offering the talents of a marketing team may help the public health experts to drive education and awareness more effectively. 

Businesses should also consider influencing other companies and organizations to join the effort. As a founding member of the Ohio Opioid Education Alliance, I’ve seen firsthand the impact of businesses coming together to combat opioid addiction in a community. More than 80 local businesses and organizations have joined the Alliance and, to date, have donated more than $8 million to fund the development of an education campaign aimed at parents and caregivers. Others have helped the campaign by communicating to stakeholders or offering other expertise. When leading companies step up, others in the community will be inspired to do so also.

It is going to take all stakeholders in communities across the country, working together, to protect our children, families, and workplaces from future opioid addiction. And businesses have a responsibility to help hone those locally-tailored solutions. 

Kirt Walker is CEO of Nationwide.

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