A View of the Epidemic: ‘There Was Something Missing’

  • Workforce Development Manager, Matt McKenney of Hypertherm listens during a meeting about high school partnership at Hyperthem in Lebanon, N.H., on June 12, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2018 10:30:06 PM
Modified: 6/16/2018 10:30:07 PM

Lebanon — It was just a few years ago when Matt McKenney, working as a generalist in the human resources department at Hypertherm, found himself among the people who had to enforce the company’s policy on substance abuse.

Back then, the Hanover-based manufacturer of plasma- and laser-based cutting technology required employees who violated the company’s zero-tolerance policy to sign a “substance-misuse agreement” in which they consented to receive treatment and stay clean.

If subsequent testing revealed employees had relapsed, they would be fired, regardless of how hard they might have been working to get healthy.

“I had to do that a couple times,” McKenney, 43, recalled. “We certainly didn’t feel like we helped that person … There was something missing.

“It still haunts me,” he added.

This March — around the time when melting snow revealed discarded syringes on the sidewalk outside Hypertherm’s building — the company summoned 140 leaders to a summit at the Heater Road plant in Lebanon.

They didn’t gather to hear about a banner year in Hypertherm’s sales or a breakthrough in advanced plasma-cutting technology or yet another survey showing how the manufacturer is one of the best companies to work at in New Hampshire.

Instead, the purpose was to raise awareness among managers of the growing problem of opioid addiction and to roll out a bold change in how the company would be dealing with employees who are in the clenches of the disease.

“Hypertherm has suffered some real tragedies at the expense of opioids,” said McKenney, now a workforce development manager. “We’ve lost a couple of dear associates that struggled with addiction and eventually gave their lives up to it. ... It’s become a real serious issue for us in the last three years.”

Now, after internal review and consulting with the recovery and health care community, Hypertherm has written a new substance misuse agreement that allows the employee to continue working at the company even in the event of a relapse, providing he or she is still taking the necessary steps toward recovery.

“We took a different look at what health meant because we didn’t feel good at the end of the traditional substance misuse agreement. If somebody tested positive, they were clearly struggling, and losing their job wasn’t helping that,” McKenney said. “The fact that they had to leave and lose support of the system, what that means to financial stability and things of that nature, was not helping the situation.”

The change came about after Hypertherm consulted organizations in the recovery community and others about the trajectory of recovery and how it is often accompanied by starts, setbacks and restarts.

“When somebody comes forward or has been identified as someone that’s struggling with opioids or addiction, regardless of the substance, we work with them (so they) better understand their treatment options and help them to connect with the treatment community,” McKenney said.

That includes helping the employee engage with recovery programs through such Upper Valley organizations as Turning Point/Second Wind and halfway house Headrest and the company’s insurance carrier, Cigna. Hypertherm also enlists the services of All Together, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center-based drug prevention group, and Ulliance, an employee-assistance program consultant that trains staff in dealing with substance abuse.

“We’ve come to understand that relapse is part of recovery, that it’s truly a disease and that there is going to be a relapse, perhaps sometimes several, in the journey to recover,” McKenney said.

For McKenney, alleviating fear and stigma for co-workers suffering from addiction has meant talking with other company employees about his own recovery from alcoholism — not in the job description of most human resource professionals.

“What I want someone who comes to me to understand is that we truly want to help, and just because you’re in this place doesn’t mean we can’t work through it,” he said. “Empathy is important. The one thing I get to talk about in my story is how willing Hypertherm was to help me, even then. It puts people at ease.”

”Because I’ve had my own struggles it’s made it easier for people to talk about theirs,” McKenney said.

Addiction, contrary to popular misconception, doesn’t necessarily mean an individual can’t make a valuable contribution to an organization, McKenney said.

He recounts the story of one recent Hypertherm employee, a shift worker on the factory floor “who we would have taken 100” of because he was “great on the team, super excited to be here and super productive.”

The employee was making good progress toward recovery when he “went out with a group of people and for whatever reason chose to use,” overdosed and died.

“Some of our biggest success stories are also our greatest tragedies,” McKenney said. “Everybody loved this person.”

McKenney declines to say how many Hypertherm employees are currently working under the revised substance misuse agreement, although he said that before the company changed its policy earlier this year about 15 employees had worked under the prior contract.

But given New Hampshire statistics indicating that at least one out of every 10 employees is estimated to have a drug dependency, and because Hypertherm employs about 1,000 people in Lebanon alone, the company’s internal statistics probably didn’t reflect the full extent of the problem, according to McKenney.

“If you got about 1,000 employees here and 15 cases over five years (that suggests) people don’t feel comfortable coming forward,” he said.

“We are looking at this differently. We want to be known as a supportive environment. We can’t help people if we don’t know they have a problem.”

But Hypertherm’s policy is no easy ride for employees, he said. Under the new substance misuse agreement, the drug testing period has been extended from one to two years.

“We’ve learned that accountability is important because it helps what the consequences might be if they were to use,” he said.

McKenney has the shop floor in his blood: Growing up in Newport, N.H., the son of a recently retired foundry worker, McKenney spent eight years working at Sturm, Ruger — where his father worked — and two years in a family-run welding business.

Joining Hypertherm as a machine operator, in 2004, McKenney moved up through the ranks to become a technical trainer and then a “generalist” in the human resources department before specializing in recruiting new employees.

The company has undertaken a number of initiatives in the past year, including creating an internal blog on the company’s intranet where employees anonymously share their own family stories with substance disorders; and developing a special section on the intranet site that lists community resources for dealing with drug addiction; and on-site screenings of the 2013 documentary, The Hungry Heart, by Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien that looks at the world of drug addiction through the work of St. Albans pediatrician Fred Holmes.

Nor is Hypertherm done developing recovery support programs.

There is going to be “recovery coach training” for volunteers on each of the company’s three daily work shifts so that someone is on hand to support a fellow employee who may be in need of help. Sometimes this could be no more than knowledgeably talking them through a stressful moment. Or it might mean helping colleagues connect with the resources at sobriety group Turning Point.

One other step: About 50 Hypertherm employees, including McKenney, have received training in how to administer the nasal spray medication to reverse the effects of an overdose. Sitting on McKenney’s desk is a kit with two doses.

“I never thought I’d be living in a world where I’d have something like this on my desk,” said McKenney. “But that is the reality we live in today.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.

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