Recovery friendly workplaces job fair pix

Michael Dolan of Exeter talks with Sarah Rawlins from Granite Recovery Centers about job openings at the recent job fair in Portsmouth.

The state is ramping up its “recovery-friendly workplace” program to help New Hampshire businesses support their employees who have substance-use disorders.

Gov. Chris Sununu announced his RFW initiative at a press conference last March, and a working group has been meeting behind the scenes since then. The state has just started advertising for four positions, including a program director and three “recovery-friendly advisers” who will help companies develop their own policies and programs.

David Mara, a former Manchester police chief who is the governor’s adviser on addiction and behavioral health, said he hopes the RFW program will be up and running by year-end.

The new positions are funded through a combination of $1 million the Legislature previously appropriated for employers to provide recovery services, and federal grants from the U.S. Department of Labor, Mara said.

Some New Hampshire companies have been “ahead of the curve,” developing their own recovery-friendly practices, he said; and about 60 have signed on to the state initiative. “In a perfect world, we’d like to get every business doing it,” Mara said.

The initiative provides a broad range of support to companies, free of charge, including training, prevention programs and ongoing consultation. The program will be tailored to the needs of each business, Mara said.

Mara said he hopes the initiative will reduce the stigma around addiction.

He said employment is key to helping individuals stay in recovery long-term. And if they work for a recovery-friendly company, he said, “They know that their employer recognizes that addiction is a disease, it is treatable and that with the right resources, people can stay in recovery and continue to grow as an employee as well as a person.”

Mara said employers have told him that individuals in recovery are some of their best workers. “I look at it this way: If somebody, especially with opioid addiction, can successfully navigate through treatment and then start recovery and then go through that successfully, it shows that they are a strong person, and that they potentially could make a good employee.”

Hypertherm was one of the first New Hampshire companies to earn the RFW designation. The employee-owned business, headquartered in Hanover, has approximately 1100 “associates” at 12 locations in the Upper Valley and another 350 employees worldwide.

Even Jenny Levy’s title offers some insight into the company’s approach: “vice president, people, community and environment.”

About three years ago, Levy said, some associates came forward to share their stories of how substance use disorder (SUD) was affecting their families. “They wanted to try and find ways to support people to sustain recovery,” she said.

Travis LaHaye was one of them. He lost his sister to a drug overdose three years ago, he said. He volunteered to serve on a team that put together an awareness campaign to educate Hypertherm associates about SUD.

Matt McKenney, Hypertherm’s workforce development manager, used to be in human resources, where he found himself having to let people go if they got into trouble from substance abuse. “In those situations, it did not feel like we were helping people or living up to our values and our mission,” he recalled.

So the company changed its policies. Now having an SUD doesn’t get you fired; it gets you help. Employees are connected with a licensed counselor and given an agreement to sign that outlines steps for treatment. There are requirements for counseling and drug testing, “but you’re still at work,” McKenney said.

Employees working on the manufacturing side can go on light duty until they’re stronger in their recovery, he said. “As soon as you start to think of it as someone being sick or ill or hurt, it becomes a really simple equation to care for somebody and put them in a situation where they are safe but still useful to our organization,” he said.

Cards are posted in public places that provide information about treatment and recovery resources. And individual employees have shared their personal stories on the company’s intranet.

Hypertherm is also planning to host a recovery coach training later this month; about two dozen employees already have signed up.

Not everyone has embraced the RFW idea. The Business and Industry Association had to cancel a September forum on the topic because not enough people signed up to attend.

Hypertherm’s Levy said an estimated 10 percent of adults struggle with some form of SUD. And that’s what she reminds other company executives who think this is not their problem, she said.

“So if you look at your workforce now, that’s one in 10 and they’re here now,” Levy said. “If someone is struggling, they are not going to be able to be the best employee that they want to be, and that you want them to be and need them to be.”

Levy welcomed the new state initiative to promote recovery-friendly practices. “It will help because it is ... trying to increase awareness and reduce stigma and produce a few key starting steps to get onto this path, to be a more compassionate, informed, aware workplace that can support people to health and wellness,” she said.

She said her company is happy to share its best practices with others. “Because we all need to share in the solutions against this incredibly vast problem that we are facing as businesses and as a society,” she said.

Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the state Department of Business & Economic Affairs, serves on the advisory council for the governor’s RFW initiative. He said businesses such as Hypertherm have helped state leaders craft the program and address issues such as benefit costs. “They’ve helped us think through a lot of questions that maybe wouldn’t have come up if not for them,” he said.

Caswell said becoming an RFW not only helps businesses to support their employees, “but also to address the fact that we have a need to have as many people participating in this economy and this workforce as we can get,” he said.

“What we’re trying to do is build a more empathetic workplace that recognizes that this is a crisis and we need to help people through it,” he said.

Caswell said the RFW designation could give companies a competitive edge in the current tight labor market here. If someone is in recovery and choosing between two potential employers, he said, “They’re going to probably choose an environment where they’ll feel more welcomed and able to be part of an environment that’s supportive.”

The initiative only makes sense, Mara said, in a state where the unemployment rate is 2.7 percent. “A lot of businesses can’t hire enough employees,” he said.

“So if we could get the vast majority of businesses to participate in this, we would be able to not only help people that are currently working that are suffering from addiction, we’d also be able to do some pretty good prevention work by educating the workforce on addiction and recovery.”

“What a great way to stop people from falling into the trap of addiction,” he said.

Beyond the Stigma, a series exploring solutions to the state’s addiction and mental health challenges, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at swickham@unionleader.com.