Building Support for Workers Through Recovery Friendly Workplaces

The consequences of substance misuse and addiction can be catastrophic in the workplace. Impairment can result in workplace incidents that lead to injuries, fatalities, quality defects leading to rework, and lost productivity through fatigue, tardiness, absenteeism, and presenteeism.

In an industry that exists to build and create, the addiction crisis has become a destructive force in construction (see “Substance Use in Construction”). However, the recovery friendly workplace movement offers new hope — and a new blueprint — for providing construction workers in recovery with the support they need to stay healthy.

The Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative

In 2018, New Hampshire launched its Recovery Friendly Workplace (RFW) initiative (www.recoveryfriendlyworkplace.com) to address the statewide impacts associated with substance use disorders (SUDs). Administered by Granite United Way in partnership with New Hampshire, this initiative empowers businesses to create work environments that are supportive of those in or seeking recovery, in addition to those who may have a loved one with SUD.

The RFW initiative was launched in response to New Hampshire’s increasing overdose rates and its effects on local workforces, including construction companies. The initiative was designed to give employers the tools, resources, and trainings they need to encourage the success of their employees in recovery.

RFW Program Director Samantha Lewandowski explains the innovative public health approach. “Work is where we reach people, and the RFW model gives us an opportunity to make recovery resources available at really what is an unprecedented scale. This is particularly important for sectors like construction where the hours can be long and tiring, and workers may not have the time, energy, or nuanced information needed to access support outside the workplace.”

What Does a Recovery Friendly Workplace Look Like?

In industries like construction that continue to struggle with workforce shortages, becoming a recovery friendly workplace may also mean directly tapping into the recovery population as a source of qualified employees. This is often accomplished by partnering with a job agency, nonprofit organization, or government agency that specializes in placing people in recovery.

In 2021, Engineering News-Record featured an innovative program of a recovery friendly workplace initiative involving Karas & Karas Glass, the Ironworkers District Council of New England, and other trade unions.1

According to Jonathan Goyer, Director of Rhode Island’s RFW initiative, the focus is on “... establishing a compassionate environment where people truly feel that it’s okay to not be okay. And it’s okay to ask for help … it’s about employers fostering an environment that is supportive of employees already in recovery and those employees making the decision to get into recovery.”

Hallmarks of recovery friendly workplaces include:

  • Supportive leave of absence and return-to-work policies
  • Recovery support meetings held on jobsites
  • Employees attend recovery-related medical appointments without fear of stigma or penalty
  • Peer-to-peer mentoring
  • Supportive conversations with employees who disclose that they or a loved one has been affected by SUD
  • Regular workplace training for addiction and recovery awareness
  • Understanding hiring practices regarding employment gaps related to recovery

Besides being good for the individual employee’s health and wellbeing, recovery friendly workplace practices are simply good business. NORC at the University of Chicago and the National Safety Council (NSC) report that supporting workers in their recovery can help an employer avoid an average of almost $8,500 in additional annual costs related to higher absenteeism and worker turnover rates among workers with untreated SUDs.

Employees in recovery miss 13.7 fewer workdays than employees with an active addiction.6 Workers in recovery are also safer on the job, reducing health care costs due to substance-related accidents.

These workers are loyal and highly engaged, and employers report less turnover and lower retraining costs associated with attrition.

Stigma: The Major Barrier for Recovery Friendly Workplaces

There are barriers that must be overcome to successfully implement a recovery friendly workplace. Stigma remains high throughout society on mental health and substance misuse.

When stigma exists, SUDs are not discussed by employees for fear of reprisals, including judgment from supervisors and peers, being assigned less desirable work tasks, undue scrutiny over work practices, being passed over for promotions, or being the first to be laid-off.

To reduce the stigma, it is important to talk openly about SUDs and recovery.

Exhibit 1 addresses common myths about SUDs in the workplace, while Exhibit 2 summarizes the realities of workplace supported recovery.

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About the Authors

Cal Beyer

Cal Beyer, CWP, SCTPP, is Vice President of Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing for CSDZ, a Holmes Murphy Company.

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Richard Jones

Richard Jones, MA, MBA, LCAS, CCS, CEAP, SAP, c-EMDR, is Executive Vice President and Executive Director for Heritage CARES, a division of Heritage Health Solutions (www.heritagehealthsolutions.com), in Coppell, TX.

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Carolyn Delaney

Carolyn Delaney is Founder and CEO for Journey Magazine (www.journey-magazine.com), a media company devoted to making recovery from addiction visible, in Portland, ME.

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