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The Opioid Epidemic: A Generation Lost from the Workforce

Posted on September 18, 2017

New research suggests that the opioid epidemic is not only a public health crisis but an economic crisis as well.

A recently published paper by Alan Krueger, Professor of Economics at Princeton University, suggests that the widespread use of opioid painkillers may be linked to declining workforce participation among American men aged 24 -54. His analysis provides evidence that these powerfully addictive medications may even be responsible for 20% of the drop in the labor-force among this demographic. As practitioners dedicated to providing treatment to this group, among others, Krueger’s study confirms our clinical experience of the link between these factors.


“Nearly half of unemployed prime age men take pain medication on a daily basis,” stated the national study.


As a whole, it is estimated that nearly two million Americans currently misuse or are dependent on prescription opioid pain relievers. This crisis gained a foothold in 1999 when the number of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors’ offices grew exponentially. Perhaps not coincidentally, workforce participation also declined during this time.


Krueger’s expert analysis of this data underscores that an entire generation of men is now lost to addiction and lost from the workforce.


Over the last 15 years, the areas where more opioids were prescribed saw steeper drops in workforce participation. Oftentimes, this occurred more frequently in areas where doctors received less training about addiction and the consequences of overprescribing opioids. When medical practitioners are not fully educated about the disease of addiction, they are less likely to prescribe medications responsibly. They are also less likely to link their patients to treatment when the symptoms of addiction present. Without the support of primary care physicians, those in the grips of addiction may not receive clinical care that helps them discover the value of employment.


The long-term use of opioids has a dramatic effect on personal well-being. This can in turn impact engagement in the workforce.


Unfortunately, research indicates that opioid use for longer than 6 weeks is not effective for chronic pain. It may even make pain worse in many cases. In addition to the serious risks of addiction, dependence, and overdose, the use of prescription opioids can have a number of side effects, even when taken as directed. This includes increased tolerance to the medication – meaning you might need to take more of the medication for the same pain relief – as well the prevalence of withdrawal symptoms when the medication is stopped. When this is coupled with higher rates of depression and lowered energy levels often brought on by long-term opioid use, pursuing employment can become astonishingly difficult.


As healthcare professionals, we know that addiction and unemployment have similar impacts on mental health 


The health benefits of work have been acknowledged by mental health professionals for decades. Those who deal directly with opioid use disorders witness these benefits as treatment progresses. Truly effective clinical programs also track these beneficial outcomes as a part of their treatment system. While having a job will not cure addiction, participating in the workforce is a valuable component of the recovery process. Employment provides accountability and helps patients to develop the life skills that are essential in recovery. Integrating this knowledge into addiction programming can help break patterns of addiction that lead to unemployment and vice versa.


While the delivery of exceptional patient care is our primary goal, we know that each successful case impacts the community at large. 


Krueger’s research reaffirms our commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic with effective clinical programming. As a team, our hope is that Origins is not simply a gateway for the individual to recover, but a launch pad for those individuals to serve as agents of change in their own families and communities. People in recovery engage in the workforce, pursue higher education, and are committed to community leadership. We know that once a person is trapped in the cycle of opioid addiction, it can be difficult to stop without professional help. As we address the opioid epidemic nationwide, we must continue to recognize the value of treatment and honor the dramatic effect that those in recovery have on our society.