Businesses Confront Twin Threats: COVID-19 and the Opioid Epidemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of American life, but especially so for individuals struggling with opioid misuse or in recovery.  

More than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Concurrently, COVID-19 has infected more than 28 million Americans and left more than 500,000 dead.  

“The pandemic is in many ways a perfect storm for anyone who is struggling with substance use disorder. People have lost their jobs. Social and family interactions have been limited. And the pandemic itself is depressing and anxiety-provoking. These are all stimuli that can stress the psyche and the finances of someone who has an addiction,” writes Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “In some cases, it could push a person who was getting their addiction under control back toward substance use.” 

Now more than ever, it is critical for employers to be armed with the tools and resources they need to respond to opioid misuse in the workplace.  

As a part of its Sharing Solutions initiative, the U.S. Chamber Foundation is responding to this increased need with a series of 50 virtual programs addressing opioid misuse in the workplace amid COVID-19.  

The Foundation has hosted programs in Louisiana, California, and Florida, with four more virtual events planned for Spring 2021.  

Among the clearest messages at each of the events has been the urgent need to reduce stigma and begin conversations with employees, whether in person or remotely, about the help and support available to them during these challenging times.  

“We have to make it okay for people to ask for help,” Red Lobster CEO Kim Lopdrup said during the Florida event. He explained that one of his friends, the founder of a health food company he had previously invested in, died of an opioid use disorder that Lopdrup had not even been aware of.  

“That made me realize I probably had a lot of friends, and a lot of employees, who are battling addictions that I don’t know about.”  

These initial conversations can be challenging, and it can be difficult to know where to start. To that end, the Foundation’s Sharing Solutions resource hub has a toolkit of resources for employers with state-specific resources and information on creating and maintaining drug-free workplaces.  

For employees who may be struggling with opioid use disorder or be concerned about a colleague or family member, the resource hub also features a selection of training modules and best practices for seeking help.  

The NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has also produced a convenient fact sheet on opioid misuse amid COVID-19 that can be easily shared with employees and fellow employers to help ease preliminary conversations on these convergent crises and stimulate a proactive, informed response from both employers and employees.  

Addressing crises of the scope and size of the opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic requires everyone who has a stake to be a part of the solution, including the business community. Together, we can reduce stigma and save lives.