Drug use among US employees has been increasing in recent years, with marijuana accounting for about half of the American workforce’s illegal drug habits. With a tight talent market, greater mainstream acceptance, and state-level legalization of marijuana, some employers have begun relaxing their drug testing policies, abandoning the zero-tolerance approach in favor of case-by-case judgments. The biggest substance abuse problems in the US, however, are not illegal drugs but rather alcohol and prescription opioid painkillers. Opioid addiction, as well as the underlying physical health issues that lead to these drugs being prescribed, has been persuasively identified as a significant driver of the decline in American workforce participation rates, particularly among men in what ought to be their prime working years.
Even more disconcerting is that the number of US employees dying from drug- or alcohol-related causes while at work has also risen sharply in recent years. While in absolute terms, those numbers remain very small, the rapid rate of increase is cause for concern, Gillian B. White warned at the Atlantic last month:
Last year alone, the number of workers who died at work because of drug- or alcohol-abuse-related incidents increased by more than 30 percent, to more than 200. While that number may seem small, it’s evidence of how rapidly the problem is growing—less than five years ago, fewer than 70 people died from overdoses at work. Since 2012, the number of people dying from drug or alcohol related causes while on the job has been growing by at least 25 percent each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. …
A tight market for qualified workers is making some US employers rethink their approaches to employee drug use, relaxing zero-tolerance policies for jobs that are not safety-sensitive, Steve Bates reports at SHRM:
Low unemployment and increasing use of illegal drugs are narrowing the pool of qualified workers in many regions and industries. State laws allowing medical and recreational use of marijuana are complicating recruiters’ efforts to find drug-free employees, as is the continued abuse of prescription opioids.
There are no indications that employers are relaxing standards for jobs that are safety-critical. Some such positions, including airline pilots and truck drivers, are regulated by the federal government and have strict prohibitions against drug use. However, HR and drug testing industry leaders say some employers are taking a new look at—and in some cases relaxing—their drug policies for positions that entail relatively low risk of injury or error, such as clerical and knowledge economy jobs.
What many of these employers are doing, it seems, is replacing the zero-tolerance approach with a more flexible standard that allows for case-by-case judgments about individual candidates or employees. Softer drug policies can also be a part of employers’ efforts to help address the crisis of addiction to opioid pain medication in the US. One Indiana company, for example, began testing its employees for opioids as well as training managers to identify signs of painkiller abuse, so that employees who are using these drugs can be directed to treatment if needed and moved out of safety-sensitive roles.
The crisis of opioid addiction in the US is no longer something employers can afford to ignore. A growing body of research points to opioids as a significant factor in the hollowing out of the US workforce, particularly among prime-aged men. We’ve also heard many stories in recent years about employers having difficulty hiring for safety-sensitive roles in certain geographies because of the lack of qualified candidates able to pass a mandatory drug test.
So for most US businesses, opioid addiction is an issue that affects both their workforce and their talent pool, and employers who find ways to support workers affected by it are doing both economic and social good. Phil Albinus thinks through some of the ways employers can help at Employee Benefit News:
There could be an increase in benefits like telemedicine services, which would broaden the reach of medical treatment to rural areas where doctors are often in short supply. In addition, employers (if they have not already done so) may review service coverage for behavioral health and/or employee assistance program needs. An evaluation of the behavioral health portions of health insurance policies and EAP contracts will help to ensure employees are covered for abuse of prescription drugs. …
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In a paper last year on the disappearance of many prime-age men from the US workforce, Princeton economist Alan Krueger presented the unsettling finding that 44 percent of working-age men who were not in the labor force reported taking pain medication on a regular basis, and two-thirds of these men were taking prescription pain medication. While improvements in video game technology may be contributing to these men’s lower workforce participation by making long-term unemployment more bearable, Krueger wrote, their high rates of poor health and use of narcotic painkillers are much more disconcerting.
In the Fall 2017 edition of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Krueger publishes an update of that research with new data, homing in on the impact of opioid epidemic on the labor market. That impact, he finds, is even more significant than previously thought, accounting for some 20 percent of the decrease in men’s labor force participation between 1999 and 2015, and 25 percent of the decrease among women, Brookings editor Fred Dews explains:
Krueger’s paper suggests that, though much of the decline can be attributed to an aging population and other trends that pre-date the Great Recession (for example, increased school enrollment of younger workers), an increase in opioid prescription rates might also play an important role in the decline, and undoubtedly compounds the problem as many people who are out of the labor force find it difficult to return to work because of reliance on pain medication.
One of the most challenging and puzzling trends in the US labor market since the Great Recession has been the persistently high number of long-term unemployed Americans of working age. Even as the economy has improved and the labor market has tightened, labor force participation remains at a lull, and many of those who dropped out of the workforce in the past decade appear unwilling or unable to re-enter it. That’s particularly true of prime-age men without college degrees, who have lost ground in the job market as traditional blue-collar jobs have disappeared or become less lucrative—and will most likely continue to disappear in the coming decade as roles mostly held by women grow in availability and importance.
Employers and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to get these men re-engaged in the workforce, whether through earning college degrees or transitioning into traditionally female-dominated professions like health care. There is, however another possible explanation for the decline of work among young men: What if they’re not working as much because they don’t want to? What if they’d rather be playing video games? That’s the provocative conclusion of a new paper by economists Erik Hurst, Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, and Kerwin Charles, released recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The New York Times‘ Quoctrung Bui goes over the paper’s findings in detail:
By 2015, American men 31 to 55 were working about 163 fewer hours a year than that same age group did in 2000. Men 21 to 30 were working 203 fewer hours a year. One puzzle is why the working hours for young men fell so much more than those of their older counterparts. The gap between the two groups grew by about 40 hours a year, or a full workweek on average. …
Hurst and his colleagues estimate that, since 2004, video games have been responsible for reducing the amount of work that young men do by 15 to 30 hours over the course of a year. Using the recession as a natural experiment, the authors studied how people who suddenly found themselves with extra time spent their leisure hours, then estimated how increases in video game time affected work.