Supporting employees who are in recovery amounts to smart business for companies
By Alison Jones Webb
Supporting employees affected by addiction—which includes people in recovery and people seeking recovery, and their family members—is good for business. Employees in recovery demonstrate improved productivity, decreased healthcare costs and reduced injuries and absenteeism compared to when they are actively using substances. Supporting family members can result in similar outcomes.
Some state governments have recognized the importance of supporting recovery generally and in the workplace specifically and created recovery-friendly workplace (RFW) initiatives. An RFW is one that has adopted policies and practices and created a workplace environment and culture that support employees in recovery from addiction. More broadly, the workplace environment is conducive to mental health and wellness.
“Today, if you’re not making strategic organizational decisions based on your people and letting them guide which direction you go, then you’re not going to be successful.”—Caitlin Harding, Watchdog Real Estate Project Management
Generally, RFW initiatives focus on conducting a needs assessment and then providing employers with information and resources to promote wellness and recovery; education and review of alcohol, tobacco and other drug policies and recommendations for improvement; and training related to stigma, substance use, behavioral health and addiction that are tailored to the company’s specific needs. (Note that a RFW is not the same as the Drug-Free Workplace Program, which is a federal program that aims to eliminate illicit drug use in federal agencies and federally regulated industries.)
New Hampshire Leads the Way
Some states—like New Hampshire, which started the first RFW initiative in the country in 2018—implement the program through state agencies. Others, like Pennsylvania, contract with recovery specialists. While there is no formal inventory of RFW programs, 35 states have registered to be part of the national Recovery Friendly Workplace Community of Practice led by the New Hampshire RFW.
Recovery Friendly Workplace Pennsylvania (RFW-PA) contracts with Unity Recovery, a recovery community organization in Philadelphia, to administer the program and has certified more than 30 employers. Greg Young, director of RFW-PA, describes an important aspect of the program that some employers are eager to implement: supportive supervision. “This model allows direct supervisors to go beyond work stuff, as long as the employee is comfortable, and encourage employees to share anything that could be a barrier to their performance, or getting to work on time, or whatever the case may be,” he says.
According to Young, this employee-centric manner of management increases employee satisfaction and leads to greater retention, reduced absenteeism and increased overall productivity. “People avoid burnout and feel like they can share issues going on at home so they’re not so isolated personally,” Young says. Supportive supervision allows employers to get at the “why” someone needs to take off work, and the supervisor’s role is to ask, “What can I do to help?” so that there’s an added layer of understanding between the two parties.
The Recovery-Friendly Workplace: A Smart Strategy
For Caitlin Harding, people and culture manager at Watchdog Real Estate Project Management, being a designated RFW in Pennsylvania is part of the company’s organizational strategy to support employee health and overall wellness.
“It’s not just about a holistic view of wellness, though,” Harding says. “Today, if you’re not making strategic organizational decisions based on your people and letting them guide which direction you go, then you’re not going to be successful. You’re not going to do right by them. You can’t sit [in leadership] and make decisions in a vacuum and assume that’s going to be right for people. More and more people are turning down roles that don’t have the flexibility and support they need. Or, if you do manage to get them and retain them, they’re not going to reach their potential if they can’t be their authentic selves.”
“Scalability can make or break a company’s culture—and we want to hold on to the elements that are most important, which are that our people are the most important thing to us.”—Caitlin Harding
“We’re growing quickly as an organization,” Harding continues. “Scalability can make or break a company’s culture—and we want to hold on to the elements that are most important, which are that our people are the most important thing to us. They are our top priority, [and] we want them to feel supported. We know the only way they’ll do good work is if they can be their best selves personally and professionally at the same time and if we can help the workplace integration that works for them.”
As for being a designated a recovery-friendly workplace, Harding says, “This should be something everyone is looking into.”