How to Create a Healthier Workforce

A new study shows that in 2015, the prescription opioid crisis caused almost one million people to be absent from their jobs.

By Jaja Okigwe October 26, 2018

Portrait of female doctor sitting at desk with young patient while check up and write diagnosis.

Most companies do not truly understand their employees health challenges. Theyll collect basic health information such as height, weight, blood pressure, and smoking status, but this data rarely provides actionable insights to better support their employees. Such data is particularly useless when trying to identify those with prescription opioid addiction and abuse.

A new study shows that in 2015, this crisis caused almost one million people to be absent from the workforce. Over a 15-year period, absences resulted in a $700 billion loss in economic output.

There are ways for organizations to determine if they have an opioid problem among their staff. Employers should work with providers, provider networks and employee assistance programs (EAPs) who use guidelines based on evidence-based practices, like the Bree Collaborative, to address opioid issues in an effort to help their employees stay in the workforce.

And to address the problem effectively, companies need to also make sure they are partnered with health plans and benefit administrators who are working directly with doctors to reach at-risk patients, working with pharmacies to ensure that people have the best information on the prescriptions that they are taking, and connecting any drug screening efforts to programs that help people maintain employment.

When an employer learns that an employee has opioids in their system, that employee can be referred to a program operated by an effective employee assistance program that can get them the help they need. When employees receive the proper support and the treatment, most are able to return to work and keep their jobs.

Doctors also need to be aware of the ways in which they can counsel their patients. Specific areas of concern include people taking opioids chronically while also taking a sedativean extremely dangerous combinationand prescription lengths longer than 14 days, which often play a major factor in continued opioid use and/or dependence.

While the opioid epidemic is a complicated and catastrophic problem for our society, this type of targeted approach can be a lightbulb moment for employers to realize health data provides the greatest chance to see an improvement in employee health, an increase in productivity and a reduction in health care costs and that it doesnt need to be extravagantor even big datato be transformational.

The information is readily available if you know where to look. Employers need to take a real population health approach to employee wellness by taking these measures:

Work with your health plan and benefits consultants to review your plan information

You may be overlooking services that analyze data to create more specific programming, and if not, seek resources that can.

Identify problems by comparing industry utilization and best practices

Seek out benchmark standards to define company metrics that you can continually measure against. Analyze this data frequently to identify potential challenges that could become opportunities to support your employees.

Connect with health care providers to alert them of potential problems with their patients

Engaging with providers allows for greater transparency with how they treat their patientsyour employeesand may help them provide better or more appropriate care plans.

Engage employees with a tailored program; ensure employees have access to an employee assistance program (EAP)

By working through an EAP, employees can feel safe talking about their health issues and work on getting the personalized treatment and support they need.

Implement prevention controls to avoid issues from arising

More than ever, healthcare is starting to become more proactive than reactive. Equip yourself with the tools to get in front of possible issues. If your data identifies potential at-risk employees, work with your EAP to provide additional support.

Regularly monitor your program (ideally quarterly or at least annually), and adjust accordingly

This isnt going to be a one-size-fits-all program year-round. Mine the data often, particularly when your workforce changes, or when you initiate a new program to affect change.

Real, practical solutions to curb workforce health issues, such as opioids, can be readily available if more companies act. With the right coaching and counsel, we can work together to create healthier and more productive employeesand it starts with leveraging targeted data.

Jaja Okigwe is CEO of First Choice Health ( He started at the company in April 2018 after leading innovation for Premera. Hes in the process of redefining the future of healthcare by identifying new, creative solutions for employers.

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