Workplace support can save lives for people in recovery

By EMILEE KLEIN

For the Recorder

Published: 06-12-2023 5:05 PM

GREENFIELD — The most effective treatment for substance use disorder doesn’t come from friends and family alone. Rather, it starts in the workplace.

With various barriers to workforce reentry for those in recovery blocking this powerful resource, the Opioid Task Force of Franklin Country and the North Quabbin aimed to address these challenges with an informational event on recovery-friendly workplaces.

Friday’s “Building Recovery-Friendly Workplaces in Franklin County and the North Quabbin” event at Greenfield Community College defined ways organizations can address the needs of their employees who are in recovery from substance use disorder. During the panel, experts explained the benefits of a recovery-friendly workplace for both employers and employees, addressed the importance of openness and self-disclosure of substance use to end the stigma of addiction and the ways to implement recovery-friendly workplaces.

Vice President of the Gardner Athol Area Mental Health Association (GAAMHA) Shawn Hayden moderated the panel of four experts: Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ Opioid Services Coordinator Justin Mehl, MassHire Holyoke’s Executive Director of Reentry and Recovery Ramona Rivera-Reno, Working Fields founder and CEO Mickey Wiles, and Hillside Pizza founder Craig White.

Rivera-Reno defines a recovery-ready workplace as an environment that acknowledges, discusses and offers support for employees’ experiences with substance use disorders. Communication and education squashes stigmas of substance use disorders and facilitates a safe space to address employees’ needs. However, Rivera-Reno notes this culture is only possible with collaboration between employers and employees.

According to Mehl, the three elements of building a recovery-friendly workplace, community or campus are a passionate liaison to advocate for open conversation and recovery resources, a member of a municipality or department who will support these initiatives, and a culture of asking for help.

“I kinda had to stop and say to our HR director, ‘Hey, if someone walked in and said I’m struggling and I need help, how are they going to feel? What are they going to say?’” Mehl said when speaking about his own department in Hartford, Connecticut. “I would say the third thing is normalizing asking for help and having an environment where that is expected and supported.”

Both employees and employers benefit from a recovery-ready workplace. Rivera-Reno said people in recovery are less likely to relapse, participate in criminal activity or violate parole. Support in the office environment is often more successful than support from friends and family due to the amount of hours per week a person spends at their job.

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“We recover out loud so others don’t have to suffer in silence,” Rivera-Reno said. “It’s important that we understand that and employers understand that employees really need their support.”

Companies benefit from this initiative in both time and money. The Cost Calculator from the National Safety Council finds that a company of 500 people saves nearly $380,000 by including recovery support in the workplace. These calculations factor in the costs from time loss, job turnover, retraining and health care.

Wiles, who detailed his successful initiative for reentry into the workplace in Vermont, said people in recovery are an untapped source of workers at a time of high job availability, as one in three Americans struggle to pass background checks. He added that employers often fear hiring people in recovery because they are unsure how to manage and help these employees.

Working Fields bridges this gap through a staffing agency built on peer coaching. Through motivational interviewing and resource connection, these coaches build a strong support system with the client. Working Fields connects a person in recovery with an account manager and peer coach to begin their support network. Coaches then connect their job seekers with resources, work through challenges and facilitate a recovery-positive culture within companies.

“When you’re creating a recovery-friendly workplace,” Wiles said, “it’s not about the people you’re bringing in as much as it’s about changing the internal culture, and working on education of the management team and then the supervisors and then down to the employee level.”

White is one of these local employers who is building a recovery-ready culture within Hillside Pizza, which now has branches in Bernardston, South Deerfield and Hadley, and The I.N.S.P.I.R.E. School for Autism, a Brattleboro, Vermont school for students with autism between the ages of 7 and 22. White, who has been 35 years sober himself, hires individuals in recovery, as well as people on the spectrum, breaking down stigmas toward both disorders. White noted that employees in recovery who work alongside individuals with autism can later transfer to The I.N.S.P.I.R.E. School, where they can work as board-certified behavior analysts or speech and language pathologists.

“The opposite of addiction is connection,” White said. “When [people in recovery] come to work for us, there’s gonna be people on the spectrum for sure, so there’s going to be lots of support for people in the autism world, but also for the addiction world.”

The panelists also discussed the importance of language, specifically using deficit-based words versus strength-based words.

Mehl said recovery does not solely correlate with absence, but a spectrum of treatment for substance use. Replacing the words “addict” or “user” with “person with opioid addiction” avoids defining the person as the problem.

Rivera-Reno noted she does not say “trauma-training,” because of the added stigma around trauma. Rather, she focuses on mental health and wellness because both substance use disorders and mental illnesses are addressed with the same open communication.

“When we talk about trauma, it comes down to the employers having to really build a relationship and change the atmosphere at their company for all humans,” Rivera-Reno said. “Everybody is suffering or dealing with something in life.”

Prior to the panel, Jessica Hughes and Robert Daignault shared their personal stories about being in recovery. Hughes’ work in helping others with substance use disorders as a recovery coach with CONNECT (the Community Opportunity, Network, Navigation, Exploration and Connection Team that serves as an opioid rapid response team) and a recovery specialist supervisor at the Franklin Recovery Center in Greenfield aided her own recovery process. Daignault’s public school education ended in seventh grade, but a course for prospective students in recovery at Greenfield Community College offered him the confidence he needed to further his education at GCC.

“When I got to be involved with people that actually believed in me, that gave me the strength to believe I can do this,” Daignault said. “I know I can, and I know I will.”

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