Dealing with Opioid Addiction in the Workplace

March 24, 2016 | Health Care
Experts say those in high-pressure careers are more likely to use opioids.

By Briana Vannozzi

Larry Redmon kicked his opioid and alcohol addiction 29 years ago. Three decades later he still attends weekly support group meetings, hoping he’ll convince just one more to follow in his path.

“I have many friends who are top notch Wall Street executives, worked for big corporations, made lots of money and wound up on the Bowery in New York homeless, as a result of this disease,” he said.

As a college educated engineer, he says one of the hardest parts was simply admitting to his peers he needed help.

“It was difficult. There was stigma in the beginning,” he said.

Redmon’s story is not uncommon. Experts say those in high-pressure professional careers are more likely to use and less likely to get help.

“Anesthesiologists, emergency room doctors and psychiatrists have a much higher rate than the general population which has a rate of like 10 to 12 percent risk of becoming addicted to opioids, their risk rate is 16 to 17 percent,” said Debra Wentz, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies.

Wentz says more than 128,000 New Jersey residents are addicted to heroin or prescription opioids. Many are able to hang on to a job, but just barely.

“They’re afraid of losing their livelihood, their social status,” Wentz said.

According to the Workers Compensation Research Institute, 60 percent of workers comp claims in New Jersey involved pain medications including opioids from 2009 to 2010.

And a study from the Oxford University Press as reported by NPR, showed prescription opioid abuse cost employers more than $25 billion nationally in 2007.

“When I was an active alcoholic and addict absolutely I missed a lot of work and I lost jobs as a result of it,” Redmon said.

“Even people who have gone through treatment and are doing OK, but are having what we call a slip have a tendency to go too far before they reach out because of pride,” said Ileen Bradley, executive director of Damon House.

The addiction recover center Damon House in New Brunswick served as the backdrop for Congressman Frank Pallone to unveil new substance abuse legislation. New Jersey has more addicts than it has beds.

“We have a prevention aspect, a crisis response for those who fall through the cracks, ensuring access to treatment for all and then the fourth is supporting lifelong recovery from addiction,” Pallone said.

There’s been talk about testing workers and federal employees for opioids, but that movement has a long way to go. For now advocates hope to put more emphasis on expanding treatment and offering that second chance.

For more stories that are part of the initiative Healthy NJ: New Jersey’s Drug Addiction Crisis, click here.