There is a “compelling argument” that employers should promote substance abuse programs that help employees access treatment. A recent study from the Boston University School of Public Health aimed to estimate rates of absenteeism due to illicit substance use. Researchers began by examining data from a sample of full-time workers who had previously participated in the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Of the sample, 18% of full-time workers self-reported substance use, and 3% met the criteria for a substance use disorder. These reports were than compared to a control group of users who reported non-substance use over a 12-month period in the survey. Researchers found that employees who reported marijuana, opioid, and poly-substance use without a disorder were significantly associated with higher absenteeism when compared to the control group. Employees who reported opioid use missed seven more workdays than nonusers. Using more than one substance was associated with five additional absences. Additionally, 23 more workdays were missed for employees struggling with substance use disorders, when compared to the nonuser control group.
Researchers then compared the rates of absenteeism to wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate a per-employee absenteeism cost. Their estimates imply that the national cost of employees’ non-disordered substance use was S10.9 billion dollars. The national cost of substance use disorder for employers was $5.5 billion. Employers could potentially expect around $1,200-$3,700 in additional annual costs per employee with substance use disorders and $600-$1,200 for each employee who uses illicit substances.
There is an important role employers can play in the substance abuse epidemic as more than half of Americans receive employer-based health insurance. Employers can promote substance abuse programs. In addition, they can advocate best for their employees when it comes to covered services for mental health and substance abuse treatment. While it may be more expensive to do so outright, the data from this study demonstrates how investing in such treatment would be beneficial to both employers and employees who use illicit substances. “Lowering barriers to and incentivizing use of evidence-based treatments [has] the potential to produce the largest ROIs for employers.”
“Given the continuing epidemic of opioid overdose and the burden of poly-substance use disorders, it is more important than ever to characterize the effects of untreated SUD and explore the potential benefits of increasing access to treatment or harm reduction measures such as naloxone distribution in contexts infrequently discussed, such as places of employment.” The researchers write. “A strength of the current study is a novel employer-based cost perspective that can offer important insights for real-world policymaking. Because employer-based health insurance is the dominant form in the United States, it is critical that employers have a thorough understanding of the costs associated with failing to address SUDs among their workforce.”
The complete study was published online in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.