Opioid addiction leads to millions of dollars in lost productivity each year, posing a serious threat to businesses across Tennessee, but treatment providers argue companies can mitigate the costs of opioid misuse by helping employees or new hires find treatment.
On Tuesday morning, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce partnered with Williamson Inc. and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to host a workshop for employers about reducing impact of opioid misuse on their businesses. The Tennessee chamber hosted similar workshops in Jackson and Kingsport.
Williamson Inc. CEO Matt Largen, who moderated a panel during the event, said local companies don’t usually list addiction as one of their top concerns. Most companies list a lack of talent or specific skill sets at their biggest challenge, but Largen emphasized that addiction is a problem.
“I never want to minimize these issues. If an individual has a problem with opioids, it doesn't matter how many other people have it. It's a problem for that person,” Largen said. "It could be something that's not reported, but I know when we talk to our companies we hear about workforce availability and skill sets far more than we hear about this.”
In 2018, 30 people died from drug overdoses in Williamson County, or nearly 15 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents. That rate is much lower than the state as a whole where there were nearly 20 opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.
The number of opioid prescriptions in Tennessee has been falling since at least 2014, but in 2018 nearly one in five Tennessee residents was receiving opioids for pain. That number was nearly one in six residents in Williamson County.
Even though the overdose rate is lower in Williamson County, opioid addiction has a measurable economic cost. A 2017 study from the University of Tennessee estimated that a slight reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions would put more than $120 into the pocket of the average Williamson County resident each year through increased labor force participation.
A 2008 study estimated that prescription drug abuse led to more than $142 million in lost productivity across Tennessee.
At the event on Tuesday, Jason Pritchard, a recovery program manager for Ballard Health, said rather than firing employees with addiction, business owners should help them find treatment. He said it’s often cheaper to treat a sick employee than train a new employee.
Pritchard, who is himself recovering from addiction, stressed that employees recovering from addiction often do great work.
“They want to prove to themselves that this is not going to define their lives,” he said. “A lot of times people can be more successful that are in recovery or coming out of incarceration because they know they have something to prove.”
With a 3.3% unemployment rate across the state and a 2.2% unemployment rate in Williamson County, many businesses don’t have the luxury of hiring a new employee to replace an employee with an addiction.
Steve Priest, the CEO of Brentwood-based Spero Health, an addiction treatment provider with more than 30 clinics across the U.S., said his company is starting to see more employers actively seeking out treatment for employees with addictions.
“They'll say to a prospective employee, if you go into an active treatment program I will hire you either on a contingent basis or a probationary period,” he said. “If you will do the the treatment program you will come to work and we'll have certain requirements.”
Priest said employers trying to fill blue collar jobs that require physical labor are having an especially hard time filling new positions.
He encouraged business owners to look at addiction like other diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
“The real key is to have an attitude within your organization that doesn't treat this like a moral failure, but acknowledges that it is a disease and encourages people struggling with disease to get treatment,” he said. “Just like you would want somebody struggling with diabetes to get treatment.”
The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce has compiled a list of resources on its website to help businesses that want to create a plan for dealing with employees who have addictions.