Winter 2017
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CTDO Magazine

Painkillers Are Shrinking the Labor Pool

Friday, December 15, 2017

The opioid crisis isn't just affecting people's personal lives, it's creating a talent shortage for U.S. companies.

The skills gap isn't the only challenge U.S. businesses face in filling open jobs. The opioid epidemic is having a damaging effect on companies and their ability to find talent and compete in the marketplace.


According to giant medical-testing lab Quest Diagnostics, drug use in the American workforce reached the highest positivity rate in 12 years. The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index examines test results of more than 10 million workers. Overall positivity in urine drug testing among the combined U.S. workforce in 2016 was 4.2 percent, a 5 percent relative increase over 2015's rate of 4.0 percent, and the highest annual positivity rate since 2004.

Those findings are remarkable because they show "increased rates of drug positivity for the most common illicit drugs across virtually all drug test specimen types and in all testing populations," says Barry Sample, senior director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions, in a written statement.

Those results concur with a 2015 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study, which highlights the ubiquity of prescription painkillers. In fact, the report indicates that more American adults used these types of opiates than used tobacco products. And deaths attributed to misuse have been rising for years, with some estimates reporting nearly 100 deaths a day.

The crisis has become urgent for many American employers. During Congressional testimony in July, 2017 Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen related opioid use to a decline in the labor participation rate. "I don't know if it's causal or symptomatic of long-running economic maladies that have affected these communities and particularly affected workers who have seen their job opportunities decline," she said.

Here's what we do know: Opioid misuse costs the U.S. economy on average $55.7 billion a year, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. ASAM also reports that employers bear the burden of nearly half of that cost, with an average of $10 billion lost every year from missed work and decreased productivity alone. Meanwhile, "Where Have All the Workers Gone?" a Brookings Institution paper on economic activity, reveals that approximately 1.8 million workers did not participate in the labor force at the beginning of 2016, with almost half of study participants (more than 880,000 individuals) admitting they had taken an opioid the day before being surveyed.

Companies have reported to LinkedIn's monthly Workforce Report that job applicants are increasingly unwilling or unable to pass drug tests. In fact, some estimates find that between 25 percent and 50 percent of qualified applicants can't pass a routine drug test. And applicants who do pass drug testing sometimes show signs of addiction after employment starts. What's more, other employees may have a legitimate prescription for opioids, but their performance slips.

This epidemic is making employers rethink their hiring practices. Some companies are widening their job searches, recruiting people from different localities within—and even outside—the United States. For example, LinkedIn notes that some manufacturers are working with international staffing agencies to place addiction-free refugees. Others may follow the example of Warren Fabricating & Machining. The Ohio manufacturer shared in a New York Times article how it has created an apprentice program to train unskilled—but sober—candidates.


Still, many companies are trying to find ways to work with former addicts and active drug users. For instance, organizations can turn to recovery programs to seek out and place recovering substance abuse addicts in stable employment. Others are dropping drug testing altogether, directly asking job applicants to share what drugs they are taking and then offering employment on a trial basis.

Advocates say that it may be time for businesses to proactively assist in the fight against opioid addiction, rather than focus on finding ways to manage the fallout of the talent shortage. That starts with updating everyone's thinking about drug abuse and treatment. New data compiled by the National Safety Council reveal that although 71 percent of employers believe addiction is a disease that should be treated like any other chronic health condition, 65 percent also think drug abuse is a justifiable reason to terminate an employee. Furthermore, only one in five managers feels prepared enough to handle opioid addiction within the workplace.

Clearbrook Treatment Centers explains that many employees who struggle with opioid addiction never seek help because they are fearful of losing their job or being judged by others. The center suggests companies can start to tackle the epidemic by improving their training for managers on how to identify and address suspected drug abuse. Employers also can establish stronger policies for communicating and advocating employee assistance programs that help workers find proper treatment.

"When employees know that resources are available to them, they are more likely to seek help faster," says Clearbrook. "Ultimately, offering an employee the treatment they need makes the most economic sense to companies."

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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