Businesses have costly incentive to address drug abuse

(Story Published in the News and Tribune April 29, 2017 for Crossroads of Crisis series)

SOUTHERN INDIANA — Stephanie Satterly used to be a model employee.

“I was reliable,” she said. “I hardly ever called in. When I went to work, I did my job well.”

Satterly, who is now a resident coordinator at a recovery home for women, even earned bonuses for her work as a waitress.

“Not big bonuses, but you know,” she said. “A little bit of money.”

That was before the Jeffersonville resident started taking opioid painkillers — and eventually — using heroin.

She was addicted for almost two years. During that time, her work ethic tanked.

When Satterly was at work, she couldn’t function.

“I went there and I went through the motions,” she said. “I did just enough to not get fired on the spot.”

Satterly even stole from her employer. She just didn’t care.

“The drugs completely take over your whole everything,” she said. “Everything.”

Satterly’s heroin habit took her from job to job, but her actions at work weren’t just hurting her. Research shows that employers lose billions of dollars each year due to substance use by their workers, particularly those involving opioids. Companies and business owners have a vested interest in helping employees who have addictions.


$78.5 billion. That’s the total economic impact of prescription opioid misuse in the United States.

At least that’s what it was in 2013, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control that was released last year.

The price isn’t just shouldered by employers — the criminal justice system and public insurance programs are also feeling the economic pressure. But a significant chunk of it is.

Businesses are mostly seeing their losses in less productive workers who are addicted to opioids, a $20 billion burden. Affected employees miss three times more work days than their healthy counterparts. When they do show up, they don’t get as much done.

Individuals who abuse opioids also cost their employers more in health insurance — about $15,000 more per year, said Curtis Florence, the primary author of the opioid study and the NCIPC’s lead health economist.

If that sounds bad, it’s actually worse, said Florence. The study didn’t examine all the costs associated with opioid abuse, including the price of overdose deaths.

It also didn’t address the economic impact of illicit drugs, such as heroin. In 2007, illegal drug use cost the country $193 billion, over 60 percent of which was due to lost productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment.

The National Safety Council, a nonprofit dedicated to halting preventable death, has been studying prescription opioid abuse since 2012.

The organization cites job turnover as one of substance use’s leading costs to employers. Retraining and replacing one employee can cost a company 21 percent of that worker’s annual salary, according to a 2012 study from the Center of American Progress.

That statistic could justify a business helping an employee with a substance use issue instead of firing them, said Tessa Benham, senior program manager for prescription drug initiatives at the safety council.

She wants employers to know that opioid addiction is impacting their bottom lines.

The problem is — many don’t.


Ed Carpenter is the new president of the Southern Indiana chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management — a group of 120 local HR professionals.

As opioid overdose rates have crept up, his peers have noticed new problems emerge at their workplaces.

“We constantly hear from our members and other companies how many applicants they have and how many fail their drug screen,” he said.

Others have had to fire employees whose performances have slipped after picking up an addiction.

But their vexation has its limits.

“I think most people would say it’s a concern,” Carpenter said. “I don’t think it’s stopping them from being able to do business because we’ll generally look for additional people or we’ll change duties.”

A 2015 NSC survey of Indiana employers found that 80 percent experienced an issue with prescription drug use. That ranged from learning that an employee had used a painkiller at work (59 percent) to sustaining an accident or near miss caused by prescription drug use (19 percent).

Still, only 33 percent of those surveyed said that opioid painkillers were a major concern at work. Nineteen percent said the same for heroin.

The safety council released another survey this year — this time, gathering information from companies across the country — with similar findings.

“One of the things that we found in this survey is while companies were aware — could identify how they were being impacted — they missed and didn’t understand the business impact of the issue,” Benham said.

So the NSC created a substance use calculator with the help of NORC at the University of Chicago, a research institute.

The online tool, found at, allows employers to plug in their location, their industry and their number of employees. With one click, they can learn how much substance abuse costs their business each year, how many of their employees are statistically affected and how much they can save by intervening.

Carpenter suspects that not all employers in the area realize how much substance use disorders are costing them, but even for those who do — he knows they have other things to worry about: the skills gap, for example, or the rapidly depleting number of baby boomers in the labor force.

“The drug problem is just a little piece,” he said. “It’s a piece of the overall picture that I think employers, in general, are facing.”

Still, many researchers, including Benham and Florence, are urging businesses and other groups to take action. If not to save money — to pay it forward.

“I think that’s important,” Benham said. “Being a good corporate citizen and being able to give back to your community is very important.”

But, she assures, they will save money.


Matthew La Rocco, a specialist at the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health, was never addicted to heroin — or opioids for that matter.

But the alcohol and drug counselor — then a salesman — did have a substance use problem.

Like Satterly, it kept him from functioning at his job.

“I didn’t really work as hard as I could have, and I wasn’t focused,” he said. “Because I was thinking about when could I get the next drink.”

La Rocco isn’t the type to assign a value to how much one thing helped him overcome his addiction, but he does acknowledge that his old boss helped him do it.

When La Rocco admitted to his boss, Ron Uesseler, that he had a problem, Uesseler gave him encouragement instead of admonishment.

“For them to go, ‘hey, we just want you to be better. We’re glad you said something. Whatever we can do to help you out, we’re going to help you out.’ Just in verbalizing that we care enough about you to kind of stay in the game and be a supportive person in your life, was a big part of me beginning to make a change…,” he said.

Carpenter, himself, is a big believer in the “second chance” policy. When an employee admits to having a substance use problem, Carpenter’s first move is to encourage the worker to get treatment. It’s company protocol — not just a personal preference.

While Carpenter says the second chance guideline isn’t for every employer, it has worked for him in the past.

The NSC outlines several other measures that employers can take to address substance use issues in the workplace. In the nonprofit’s nationwide prescription drug use study, the organization found that the best thing a company can do is train their employees how to identify the risks associated with substance use, Benham said.

As for how many employers actually follow safety council suggestions, numbers are high, but inconsistent. Eighty percent of companies have a drug policy or program in place, but only two-thirds cover prescription drugs in that policy. And only one-in-five businesses do everything that the NSC recommends.

“What we found is most companies have areas that they could improve in their policies,” Benham said.

Anecdotally, Carpenter knows a lot of local employers that drug test at their workplace. Wellness programs are also more prevalent than they’ve been in the past.

“But whether everybody’s doing enough, I don’t know if we could do enough to address the problem,” he said.


For the employers who try, however, there are benefits.

An employee in recovery from a substance use disorder is less likely than the average worker to miss work.

Satterly, who is approaching her third year of sobriety, lives at work. She has a bedroom there.

Satterly is employed at the Bliss House in Jeffersonville, where she supervises women who are at a place in their recovery journey where she once traveled.

Satterly graduated from the Healing Place in Louisville, a program similar to Bliss House.

Now, in a job where she feels fulfilled, Satterly has returned to her old habits. The good ones.

Her boss recently called her into her office to praise her; Satterly has access to keys that protect important things.

“To people that have never been through what I’ve been through, those things seem really mediocre,” she said. “But for somebody that has come from the things that I have, those things are huge.”

She finally feels trustworthy again.

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