The opioid crisis and the Australian workforce


Prescription opioid use in Australia has increased drastically. How is this growing social problem affecting the workplace?

Australia is fighting an opioid battle. A 2017 report issued by the National Drug and Research Centre found that opioid related deaths in Australia exceeded deaths on the roads for the first time, and has more than doubled in 10 years.

Opioid prescriptions have also increased 15-fold from 1992-2012. Almost a million Australians are abusing or misusing pharmaceutical drugs with legal painkillers a growing issue.

In an effort to curtail the problem, the Therapeutic Goods Administration stipulated that codeine-based products such as Nurofen Plus and Panadeine Extra can no longer be sold over the counter. Although it’s too early to see the effects of this new law, there are fears it could drive pain management underground towards illicit use, as has happened in the US.

The effects of opioid use on the workforce

US based economist Alan Krueger has written about the close relationship between increased opioid addiction and missing workers, although it’s unclear whether joblessness precipitated addiction or vice versa.

A recent survey in the US by the National Safety Council found around 70 per cent of employers had witnessed the impact of prescription opioid use on their staff, whether it was showing up late or not at all, or reduced performance. The cost to employers doesn’t just centre around lost productivity, but around injury and compensation claims, and even death at work. According to The US Bureau of Labour Statistics, opioid overdoses are the leading cause of workplace deaths in the nation.

While Australia’s use of prescription opioids does not yet match that of the US, Stanford University Professor of medicine and former White House advisor Keith Humphreys says, “Australia is one of a group of countries that is rapidly moving towards the same dangerous territory.”

Recognising the signs

Opioid users are not the shady characters of fiction but ordinary people, trying to regulate their pain. That’s what makes the issue so widespread and difficult to combat.

Employers firstly need to be aware of the effects of opioids so they can recognise them in their staff. Nine signs an employee could be abusing opioids are:

  • reduced mental clarity and sharpness
  • increased incidents of theft and things going missing around the office
  • poor decision making
  • change in appearance – bloodshot eyes, weight loss, disheveled appearance.
  • reduced appetite
  • slurred speech
  • increased irritability, anxiousness and mood swings
  • change in energy levels
  • signs of withdrawal (flu-like symptoms such as a runny nose, nausea diarrhoea, excess sweating, shaking).

Taking action

Misuse of prescription drugs has a relatively low profile and it’s not widely known that quality drug screening equipment can detect significant levels of painkillers such as codeine. Although use of these prescription drugs is not illegal, their abuse can lead to health and safety impacts on workplaces and so management needs to monitor workers and counsel those who are identified as a result of a failed drug test.

Introducing random drug testing however is fraught with problems. It is an accepted principle by industrial courts and tribunals that random testing is an intrusion on the privacy of the individual which can only be justified on health and safety grounds. The employer has a legitimate right to try and diminish the risk that employees might come to work impaired by alcohol or drugs when they could pose a risk to health and safety.

Employers should have a firm alcohol and drug policy in place before attempting to institute random drug testing. Employees should also be well aware of the policy and the terms beforehand. This could be paired with drug and alcohol education and training, and counselling services via EAP.

Pre-employment testing is a possibility that can reduce the risk of bad hires, but it could also potentially alienate candidates due to the invasiveness of the task.

The company drug and alcohol policy could include an obligation to inform the employer about prescription drug use that could affect performance and/or safety, but again employees should be made well-aware of this, preferably in the employment contract.

As previously discussed in HRM, a strict zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy can help matters: “Recent (FWC) decisions have shown a tendency to endorse strict zero-tolerance or low-tolerance drug and alcohol policies in high-risk workplaces, provided the policies set out clear expectations and obligations for employees and the consequences of non-compliance.

Most importantly, early intervention is key. If you see something is amiss, provide support early on.


Access HR guidelines and policy templates on workplace health and safety issues with the online resource AHRI:ASSIST, by becoming an AHRI member.
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The opioid crisis and the Australian workforce


Prescription opioid use in Australia has increased drastically. How is this growing social problem affecting the workplace?

Australia is fighting an opioid battle. A 2017 report issued by the National Drug and Research Centre found that opioid related deaths in Australia exceeded deaths on the roads for the first time, and has more than doubled in 10 years.

Opioid prescriptions have also increased 15-fold from 1992-2012. Almost a million Australians are abusing or misusing pharmaceutical drugs with legal painkillers a growing issue.

In an effort to curtail the problem, the Therapeutic Goods Administration stipulated that codeine-based products such as Nurofen Plus and Panadeine Extra can no longer be sold over the counter. Although it’s too early to see the effects of this new law, there are fears it could drive pain management underground towards illicit use, as has happened in the US.

The effects of opioid use on the workforce

US based economist Alan Krueger has written about the close relationship between increased opioid addiction and missing workers, although it’s unclear whether joblessness precipitated addiction or vice versa.

A recent survey in the US by the National Safety Council found around 70 per cent of employers had witnessed the impact of prescription opioid use on their staff, whether it was showing up late or not at all, or reduced performance. The cost to employers doesn’t just centre around lost productivity, but around injury and compensation claims, and even death at work. According to The US Bureau of Labour Statistics, opioid overdoses are the leading cause of workplace deaths in the nation.

While Australia’s use of prescription opioids does not yet match that of the US, Stanford University Professor of medicine and former White House advisor Keith Humphreys says, “Australia is one of a group of countries that is rapidly moving towards the same dangerous territory.”

Recognising the signs

Opioid users are not the shady characters of fiction but ordinary people, trying to regulate their pain. That’s what makes the issue so widespread and difficult to combat.

Employers firstly need to be aware of the effects of opioids so they can recognise them in their staff. Nine signs an employee could be abusing opioids are:

  • reduced mental clarity and sharpness
  • increased incidents of theft and things going missing around the office
  • poor decision making
  • change in appearance – bloodshot eyes, weight loss, disheveled appearance.
  • reduced appetite
  • slurred speech
  • increased irritability, anxiousness and mood swings
  • change in energy levels
  • signs of withdrawal (flu-like symptoms such as a runny nose, nausea diarrhoea, excess sweating, shaking).

Taking action

Misuse of prescription drugs has a relatively low profile and it’s not widely known that quality drug screening equipment can detect significant levels of painkillers such as codeine. Although use of these prescription drugs is not illegal, their abuse can lead to health and safety impacts on workplaces and so management needs to monitor workers and counsel those who are identified as a result of a failed drug test.

Introducing random drug testing however is fraught with problems. It is an accepted principle by industrial courts and tribunals that random testing is an intrusion on the privacy of the individual which can only be justified on health and safety grounds. The employer has a legitimate right to try and diminish the risk that employees might come to work impaired by alcohol or drugs when they could pose a risk to health and safety.

Employers should have a firm alcohol and drug policy in place before attempting to institute random drug testing. Employees should also be well aware of the policy and the terms beforehand. This could be paired with drug and alcohol education and training, and counselling services via EAP.

Pre-employment testing is a possibility that can reduce the risk of bad hires, but it could also potentially alienate candidates due to the invasiveness of the task.

The company drug and alcohol policy could include an obligation to inform the employer about prescription drug use that could affect performance and/or safety, but again employees should be made well-aware of this, preferably in the employment contract.

As previously discussed in HRM, a strict zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy can help matters: “Recent (FWC) decisions have shown a tendency to endorse strict zero-tolerance or low-tolerance drug and alcohol policies in high-risk workplaces, provided the policies set out clear expectations and obligations for employees and the consequences of non-compliance.

Most importantly, early intervention is key. If you see something is amiss, provide support early on.


Access HR guidelines and policy templates on workplace health and safety issues with the online resource AHRI:ASSIST, by becoming an AHRI member.
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