During the COVID-19 pandemic, more people worked from home. This increased isolation and general stress from the pandemic caused a spike in opioid use.
The Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic affected society in countless ways.
The pandemic dramatically shifted the workplace. Before the coronavirus outbreak, only 20% of employed adults worked from home, while during the height of the pandemic in 2020, more than 70% did.
Working from home brings both rewards, such as more flexibility and uninterrupted time to work, and challenges like social isolation, increased mental health issues, and more drug use.
Opioid Use Stats Before & After the Pandemic
Opioid use spiked during the pandemic. One of the ways to measure opioid use is through drug overdose deaths, which saw a giant leap during the pandemic. Overdose deaths, which are largely driven by opioids, rose 30% from 2019 to 2020, from around 70,000 deaths in 2019 to more than 93,000 deaths in 2020.
Opioid overdose rates rose another 15% in 2021. Drug overdose deaths increased to almost 108,000, more than 80,000 of which involved opioids.
In 2020, approximately 9.5 million people misused opioid drugs in the United States and 2.7 million had an opioid use disorder (OUD).
Why Did Opioid Use Increase?
There are a variety of reasons that opioid use increased during the pandemic. While nearly three-quarters of the workforce was working from home, the following occurred:
- Increased social isolation: The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine kept people at home and isolated from peers, resources, coworkers, and healthy social outlets. Restaurants, gyms, churches, workplaces, and more were all closed for a period, forcing people to remain in their own homes, either alone or with their immediate families only.
This isolation led to an increase in opioid use, as there were fewer people checking up on others. Employers were less likely to notice an employee misusing drugs, so some employees were better able to have their drug use go largely unnoticed.
- Elevated stress and mental health issues: The pandemic also gave rise to higher levels of stress. Times were extremely uncertain, and being confined to the home without any positive outlets exacerbated this.
High stress also compounded mental health concerns, causing higher rates of depression and anxiety. Stress, anxiety, and depression often go hand in hand with drug misuse and substance use disorder. Opioids provide temporary relief from negative thoughts and emotions, offering a short respite from “real life.”
In addition, opioids can often be misused as a method of self-medication for other issues. In reality, their use makes things worse in the long run.
- More time and greater access: The pandemic and subsequent isolation also gave people more time and the ability to use drugs without disruption. It can be difficult to use drugs while at a workplace but being at home provides more opportunities.Boredom during the pandemic is also a contributing factor for increased opioid use. People had more time on their hands and less things to do, so they were more likely to look for distractions in any form.
- Disruptions in health care and treatment: The COVID-19 pandemic brought a lot of things to a screeching halt, including regular medical care, mental health care, and substance use disorder treatment services. People in pain were likely to self-medicate with opioid drugs since they were often unable to receive necessary medical care.Without direction and supervision from a trained health care professional, use of opioid drugs can be extremely dangerous. In-person substance misuse treatment services became more difficult to obtain once the COVID-19 pandemic started, and many people relapsed without this support available to them.
Employers & Helping Employees
Three-quarters, or 75%, of adults who have a substance use disorder are gainfully employed and in the workplace. This brings up many concerns for employers. In one surgery, 86% of employers were concerned that the use of prescription opioids is negatively impacting the workplace and 74% were concerned that illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl were disrupting the workplace.
Opioid use increases the risk for accident, injury, and costly business mistakes due to mental impairment and poor judgment. The annual costs for an untreated OUD can be over $10,000 for each employee affected.
Employers can help employees via some of the following methods:
- Ensuring that evidence-based treatment methods for opioid misuse are covered through employer health care plans similarly to how other medical and mental health conditions are covered
- Training employees and supervisors on the signs of drug use, misuse, and OUD for early intervention methods
- Leveraging Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to connect employees with short-term counseling and assistance, refer employees to local treatment resources (including peer support groups), and help employees with their return to work after completing a treatment program
- Supporting employees in recovery
Prevention of Opioid Misuse in the Workplace
It is important to ensure that drug-free workplace policies exist and are effectively and routinely communicated to prevent drug misuse by employees. Employees should all be educated on the opioid epidemic to prevent opioid misuse by outlining the dangers of these powerful substances. Education and training for employees and supervisors can help to increase awareness about opioid drug use and misuse.
Opioids are highly addictive and have a high risk for fatal overdose. This is particularly true since the beginning of the pandemic, as there has been disruptions in the drug supply chain, contributing to a massive increase in fentanyl in the drug supply.
Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid drug that can cause overdose quickly. It is often found in illicit drugs without the knowledge of the user.
Drug panel testing should include screening for opioids. Routine drug screening can be a preventative measure for opioid misuse, as employees often do not want to suffer the consequences of being caught using an illegal drug.
Treatment Options for Opioid Misuse
Opioid use disorder should be treated with the same care and level of coverage as other mental health and medical conditions. Depending on the specific needs of the employee, treatment programs can include either outpatient or inpatient services. The rise of the pandemic also increased telehealth options, making opioid addiction treatment more accessible.
Treatment methods may include the following:
- Individual and group counseling and behavioral therapies
- Medication for opioid use disorder (mOUD)
- Educational programs
- Workshops for life skills training
- Support groups
- Recovery support
Check out the following resources regarding opioid misuse:
- The National Safety Council (NSC) offers a toolkit for employers to help address opioid use within their organizations.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a treatment provider locator tool that you can use to find local behavioral health services, including opioid addiction treatment options.
SAMHSA also keeps an updated Opioid Treatment Program Directory that can be used to find local providers.
Reviewed By: Peter Manza, PhD
- How the Coronavirus Outbreak Has – and Hasn’t – Changed the Way Americans Work. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/12/09/how-the-coronavirus-outbreak-has-and-hasnt-changed-the-way-americans-work/. December 2020. Accessed August 2022.
- How the COVID Pandemic Made the Opioid Epidemic Worse, Even as Telehealth Helped. U.S. News & World Report. https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-10-01/how-the-covid-pandemic-made-the-opioid-epidemic-worse-even-as-telehealth-helped. October 2021. Accessed August 2022.
- Overdose Deaths Continue to Rise in 2021, Reaching Historic Highs. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/05/11/1098314220/overdose-deaths-continued-to-rise-in-2021-reaching-historic-highs. May 2022. Accessed August 2022.
- Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2020-nsduh-annual-national-report. October 2021. Accessed August 2022.
- Implications of Opioid Use Disorders for Employers. National Safety Council. https://www.nsc.org/workplace/safety-topics/drugs-at-work/opioid-use-workforce-(1). 2022. Accessed August 2022.
- Drugs at Work: What Employers Need to Know. National Safety Council. https://www.nsc.org/workplace/safety-topics/drugs-at-work/drugs-at-work-home. 2022. Accessed August 2022.
- Begin Addressing Opioid Use in Your Organization. National Safety Council. https://cloud.safe.nsc.org/rxemployerkit. 2022. Accessed August 2022.
- FindTreatment.gov. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://findtreatment.gov/. Accessed August 2022.
- Opioid Treatment Program Directory. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://dpt2.samhsa.gov/treatment/directory.aspx. Accessed August 2022.
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