The business sector often is seen as lagging behind other institutions in its level of engagement on a community's substance use problems. Companies often aren't aware of the community resources available to a struggling employee, or might fear the possible consequences of doing something wrong. A New Hampshire initiative launched in 2018 by the office of Gov. Chris Sununu has established a platform for education and communication among businesses in the state.
The Recovery Friendly Workplace initiative has grown from a group of 25 early adopter companies two years ago to more than 250 today. A New Hampshire company's certification as a recovery-friendly workplace gives it access to informational resources, with the most significant being assignment of a recovery-friendly adviser to the organization.
Shannon Bresaw, MSW, serves as the initiative's program director, bringing more than a decade of substance use prevention-related experience to her role. “In my past experience I always tried to meaningfully engage the business sector, with not a lot of success,” Bresaw tells Addiction Professional.
An initiative driven by the governor's office has been able to make greater inroads with the corporate community. “I've been so impressed with the level of interest and the level of commitment,” Bresaw says. “It's been surprising to me.”
Origins of initiative
Bresaw explains that the governor's own business background oriented him to the impact of substance use disorders on workplaces. Sununu once served as CEO of a New Hampshire ski resort, where he experienced firsthand the challenges that faced some employees with substance use problems.
As a candidate for governor, Sununu prioritized the issue of the opioid crisis in the state, which experienced increasing death rates in the 2012-2017 period. “With his business background, he was really trying to see how businesses could be part of the solution,” says Bresaw, in terms of their helping employees to get connected to resources.
It has been important to do this in a way that does not overburden companies, she adds. “We understand that businesses have a business to run. We want to make it easy for companies to get involved and stay involved.”
New Hampshire companies interested in the recovery-friendly workplace designation complete a letter of intent on the initiative's website. Once senior management completes an orientation and communicates its interest to its workforce, a certification is issued and additional resources become available. These include connecting the company to a local recovery community organization.
Far and away the most impactful resource, however, has been the assigned recovery-friendly adviser. Bresaw says the initiative currently has three individuals filling this role. Some have a business background while others have had more direct roles in the addiction arena.
“The wonderful piece about having an adviser is you have a person you can contact when you have challenges,” Matthew McKenney, workforce development leader at Hanover-based Hypertherm Inc., tells Addiction Professional. Hypertherm, a maker of plasma cutting systems and employer of more than 1,000 people at its Hanover headquarters, was one of the 25 early adopters in Recovery Friendly Workplace.
History of involvement
McKenney says Hypertherm always had looked to creative solutions for supporting individuals who needed help, but that did not make it immune to addiction's potentially deadly consequences.
“We had a beloved manufacturing associate pass—that was really tough,” McKenney says. After that happened, personal stories of loss from addiction flooded the workplace, demonstrating just how pervasive the problem is for businesses.
“We just went through a new year commitment, and our adviser helped us set goals for 2020,” McKenney says. “We're now communicating with other businesses and sharing best practices.”
Involvement as a recovery-friendly workplace has empowered employees to speak about challenges in an environment free of judgment, he says. In the past, “We certainly weren't prepared to help someone in recovery stay in recovery,” he says. Companies often are advised to do the bare minimum in terms of offering assistance, McKenney says, but that likely won't be the best option for the employee.
Bresaw says it sometimes can be easier to engage businesses with the message that they can help employees deal with a loved one's substance use issue. “Sometimes it's hard for them to accept that they're directly impacted,” she says. But the numbers don't lie, with the estimate that substance use issues cost New Hampshire businesses more than $2 billion annually in absenteeism, lost productivity and other adverse impacts.