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September 22, 2023

Creating a Recovery-Ready Workplace: Five Takeaways for Employers



It’s no secret that America faces a crisis of addiction. Most of us know someone who’s struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). These are our family members, our friends, and – very likely – our work colleagues.

That’s because the vast majority of U.S. adults with a substance use disorder are currently employed. And 13.3 million workers – 9% of the total workforce – consider themselves recovered or in recovery from an SUD.

Last week, we convened a panel of experts to provide insights and guidance to help employers better support workers on a path to addiction recovery. Here are five takeaways that emerged from our discussion.


1. Combat the stigma around SUDs

Fear and stigma can create real barriers for people who may need addiction treatment and care. Employees might hesitate to seek treatment or request leave out of fear of retaliation. Or, they may be concerned about how colleagues would view them if they’re open about their addiction.

Amanta Mazumdar, Vice President of Americas Total Rewards at Hilton, says, “The biggest role employers can play is around stigma. Employers have to normalize conversations around SUD [to help] those struggling to feel more confident about engaging in those discussions.”

Hilton started a company-wide conversation series that grew out of DEI efforts to talk about challenging topics. Indeed, speaking openly to remove the stigma around personal challenges is crucial not just to recovery, but to addressing mental health and building belonging in the workplace, as well.


2. Self-education is key

The more you do the work personally to understand your biases about addiction, the better you can advocate for a recovery-ready workplace. According to Kirsten Suto Seckler, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of Shatterproof, a non-profit organization dedicated to reversing the addiction crisis, 72% of employers are not willing to hire someone with an SUD, and close to two-thirds of employees say they aren’t willing to have a person with an SUD work closely with them. “Educating yourself is important as well as having open conversations that start at the top, along with understanding what conscious or unconscious bias you might have about those struggling with addiction,” she said.

Remember, addiction affects people from every socioeconomic demographic, race, and gender. It is not a choice, a moral failing, or a lack of willpower; it is a medical condition that affects the structure and function of the brain. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment and recovery.


3. Consider alternatives to alcohol-based events

If one in eleven U.S. workers has an SUD or is in recovery, then it’s likely that a good portion of your workforce could be distressed or triggered by work events where alcohol is served. Rather than toast a colleague’s promotion over cocktails or celebrate big wins over happy hour, consider other ways to commemorate team milestones – like outdoor activities, team-building exercises or volunteer events.

Paul Bryant, Director of Kaiser Permanente’s Addiction Medicine Program, says changing that aspect of the work culture is a major component of a recovery-ready workplace. “Some of our meetings in our health care group included alcohol and we moved away from that as we realized we don’t really need to include drinking at these events,” he said.

At Hilton, they are seeking to ditch the “happy hour” evenings in favor of other social opportunities, such as hiking. Mazumdar says, “We’re learning as we grow and looking at feedback data and training our managers to think differently.”


4. Clinicians aren’t the only professionals who can help employees struggling with SUDs

Our experts agreed on a key point that is often under-represented in discussions around recovery-ready workplaces: medical professionals don’t have to be the first line of defense to help employees with SUDs. Managers can be excellent “first responders” – trained to spot signs of substance use and empowered to connect workers to confidential care and support services.

Cheryl Brown Merriwether, Vice President and Executive Director of the International Center for Addiction and Recovery Education (ICARE), stressed, “There are other highly trained and certified non-clinical professionals [to consider], such as recovery coaches and certified addiction awareness facilitators, that are key parts of the recovery-ready workplace efforts.”

Jeff Levin-Scherz, Population Health Leader of the North American Health Management practice of WTW, added, “Look at how doulas help with maternity care. Employers need to create a culture where employees feel safe by getting access to the right resources, and where their privacy is also respected.” (Click here to read more from Jeff Levin-Scherz with his thoughts from the event.)


5. View recovery as resilience and a skill worth celebrating

Companies should regard employees in recovery as valuable members of their team. Merriweather says it’s a matter of emphasizing those employees’ resilience. “They possess a wide range of strengths that come from their ability to overcome addiction and adopt a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “They are resilient and recovery champions and heroes.”

They can also be valuable contributors to peer support networks based on their “incredible lived experience that lets them provide support to those who may need it,” Merriweather added.

If an employee in recovery is comfortable talking about it, their lived experience can be valuable for helping employees truly understand the realities of the addiction crisis. Levin-Scherz says, “[Employers] should ensure SUD has a human face. We often cite so many statistics, but this issue isn’t about stats or a worrisome graph about overdoses. We are all driven by stories, by faces, and we have to remember SUD is about real people, not numbers.”

Becoming a Recovery Ready Workplace

Ready to get started? We’ve produced an introductory resource to help you begin building a recovery-ready workplace.

Download Now

Inside you’ll find:

  • Benefits to making your workplace recovery-ready
  • Best practices for communications to your employees
  • Case studies from Amazon and Salesforce
  • Additional resources to help you connect employees to treatment and care