Employers Aid in Addiction Recovery

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/29/2018 12:15:19 AM
Modified: 3/29/2018 12:15:28 AM

Hooksett, n.h. — Family, friends and community members supported Jackie Mitchell through the grief she felt after her 24-year-old son died in a drunken driving accident in 2011.

Mitchell, who directs operations at the Gilsum, N.H.-based natural and organic body product manufacturer W.S. Badger Co., said while that support was essential to helping her “through the worst possible darkness in my life,” she wished she had been able to rely on similar assistance during the eight years her son struggled with drug and alcohol addictions before his death.

“The struggle was daily and it was real,” she said on Wednesday during a forum at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett about the way that businesses can help support employees with mental health and addiction issues.

Wednesday’s event, sponsored by Dartmouth-Hitchcock, among others, brought together mental health care providers, business people and activists from around the state who emphasized the important role that culture change within businesses can play in addressing addiction and other mental health conditions. By addressing these conditions through peer-to-peer support, on-site training and workplace wellness programs, businesses can take care of their employees and boost productivity, Wednesday’s speakers said.

“This is about profitability,” Gov. Chris Sununu said in his remarks.

Untreated addiction costs New Hampshire businesses $2.4 billion in lost productivity, according to a 2017 study by PolEcon Research.

While he was CEO of the Waterville Valley Ski Resort, Sununu said, he addressed the issue of addiction among his employees by connecting younger workers in active addiction with older workers in recovery. Doing so helped the younger works find services they needed, he said.

Sununu also said the state recently has begun a recovery friendly workplace effort to recognize employers who have made an effort to support those in recovery.

Businesses also can be negatively affected by having employees on the job who are distracted by their own illness or that of a loved one.

While Brandon Farrow was alive, Mitchell said, she was burdened by the stress of not knowing where her son was, whether he was living or dead, or whether he would agree to undergo treatment if she found options for him.

For those eight years, Mitchell took that stress with her to work, which affected her productivity, she said.

“I took all of that pain and all of those feelings with me,” she said.

Yet it wasn’t a stress she felt she could share with her co-workers, except in private conversations with people she knew were going through something similar.

To support others like herself who may have a loved one struggling with addiction, Mitchell worked with others at Badger last year to bring speakers to discuss how to change the culture so that people would feel more comfortable speaking openly about their struggles with addiction and mental illness. They also hosted a training to prepare Badger employees to have these conversations with co-workers and others in their lives.

This year, Badger plans to expand its efforts to focus on prevention and to host a training on how to administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, Mitchell said.

“For businesses out there, the important thing is to create an environment where any individual feels comfortable to bring an issue to them,” said Rebecca Hamilton, a co-owner and vice president of research and development at Badger.

Former Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and former CEO of Procter & Gamble Bob McDonald said that changing the culture of an organization isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.

McDonald, who took over leadership of the VA in 2014 amid a crisis there related to veterans having long waits to access care, drew a parallel between the problems at the VA and companies’ approach to mental health and addiction.

The access problems at the VA were symptoms of a larger cultural problem, McDonald said. What he found at the VA was a rule-based culture, not a principle-based culture. He described an instance where a receptionist refused to get up and assist a veteran with restricted mobility out of his car and into a VA medical center because it was against the rules. The veteran was forced to call 911 for assistance.

In contrast, McDonald said, a nurse at the White River Junction VA called law enforcement out of concern for a veteran’s well-being when he failed to show up for an appointment. As a result, law enforcement found him at his home wedged between two pieces of furniture.

“They revived him and saved his life,” McDonald said.

Essential to having employees provide good customer service and act based on principle is to make sure those employees are well trained and feel supported themselves, he said.

“You’ve got to care for the people,” he said.

Joe Sifer, executive vice president at the Virginia-based professional services company Booz Allen Hamilton, said that his company’s main asset is its employees’ brainpower, but at any given time 25 percent of its 26,000 employees are suffering from a mental illness.

To address this challenge, when the company created a wellness program four years ago, it included mental health supports as well as physical health benefits, he said. It took persistence and a generational change in leadership to institute this change, said Sifer, who himself has struggled with post traumatic stress disorder.

“What our workforce needs is to know that we’re fully invested in them,” he said. Business leaders “have to enable an environment where individuals can be who they are.”

Several speakers told personal stories about their own struggles or family members’ struggles with mental illness and addiction. Will Torrey, vice chairman for clinical services for Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s department of psychiatry, asked the roughly 100 members of the audience to raise their hands if they or a loved one struggled with mental illness or addiction, and nearly every hand went up.

“We’re not talking about other people,” he said. “These are illnesses that are us.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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