New Ways to Confront Drug and Alcohol Misuse in the Workplace

Each year, drug and alcohol problems among employees result in the loss of productivity, profits, and a positive working environment for businesses and organizations. In the past, employees dealing with these issues might incur severe consequences from their employers, frequently resulting in termination, which often led to a further downhill spiral in their lives. However, in recent years, many forward-thinking companies and organizations are trying different approaches to support employees facing addiction problems.

One such company in the Upper Valley is the well-respected Hypertherm Associates. Stacey Chiocchio, the community citizenship manager at Hypertherm Associates, explains how this move towards assisting employees with addiction issues, termed a “recovery-friendly workplace”, began at the firm.

“Oftentimes, the way things start is with our associates,” says  Chiocchio. Associates (employees) realized that with the burgeoning opioid crisis affecting so many in New Hampshire and Vermont, the company needed to be proactive in response. So in the mid-2010s,  progress toward a recovery-friendly workplace was underway.

Removing the stigma associated with drug and alcohol problems and building a safe space for recovery at the company was the goal when they first addressed the issue, says Chiocchio. In doing this, the company sought outside support in the process, which included ideas from the Dartmouth Hitchcock Community Health team. Also playing a  major role in this effort is Hypertherm’s own HOPE Foundation. The Hypertherm HOPE Foundation continues to fund nonprofits in this space with programs focused on education to remove stigma and help support recovery.

Though the process of establishing a recovery-friendly work environment began in 2015, it continues to grow and evolve, Chiocchio says. “Every year we’ve added more and more strengths to the (effort)…it’s a journey.”

One key initiative at first was looking at past policies and protocols regarding employees with substance use disorders and then adapting them. In the past, when an employee was experiencing drug or alcohol problems related to work, “often it led to termination,” says Chiocchio. All agreed that this could no longer be the main option; “We needed to do better.” 

Doing better meant supporting these employees going through difficult times. That support includes helping the individual connect with a  licensed alcohol and drug counselor to create a plan. 

Many other company supported assets are now in place to help,  Chiocchio says. These include resource cards found in all of the restrooms, providing employees with a private space in which to learn about their options. The company has also trained associates, termed “champions,” within the company to provide information and resources for those in need. Recently, the company has installed a resource called a “Naloxbox” throughout each of their facilities. When opened, it notifies all that there is a lifesaving measure occurring. The box contains Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Any associate is able to open the box to administer this lifesaving drug.

“Through the actions we took, we created a recovery-friendly  workplace,” says Chiocchio.

The goal of creating a recovery friendly work environment is not unique to Hypertherm Associates. After Hypertherm began this program, the State of NH began its Recovery Friendly Work Initiative. According to information on the State’s website, “Untreated addiction costs New Hampshire’s economy $2.36 billion. 66% of that cost ($1.5 billion) is incurred by businesses in the form of impaired productivity and  absenteeism.”

The State site goes on further to say, “The Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative gives business owners the resources and support they need to foster a supportive environment that encourages the success of their employees in recovery.”

The State recognizes Hypertherm Associates as a partner in the  Initiative, along with many other companies and organizations throughout NH. The response to Hypertherm’s recovery friendly effort and initiatives among the staff has exceeded expectations, says Stacey Chiocchio. “This (effort), more than any other, has had such a dramatic effect in a positive way.”

Having this recovery based effort has to some extent changed the  culture at the company, Chiocchio points out. “We like to celebrate  milestones,” she says, such as employees reaching

25 years of service.  Though in the past, those celebrations would often take place at an  establishment where alcohol was served, such as a brewery. Changes to this were inevitable; “That doesn’t feel like it’s supporting all our associates,” says Chiocchio. In response, she says this year’s celebration took place at VINS as an alcohol free event, making it a more comfortable occasion for those in recovery. “We’re really proud of that pivot,” says Chiocchio.

Not only employees at the company benefit from this recovery initiative – family members do as well. “Some (employees) have family  members struggling, they feel supported, and they now feel that they can ask for help for those family members,” says Chiocchio.

Though many companies are realizing a recovery friendly work  environment is important, many more have yet to make that commitment. When asked what companies contemplating a move towards a recovery friendly workplace should do, Stacey Chiocchio offers blunt advice. “Be honest with yourself; don’t be in denial that you have substance abuse within your walls.”