Samantha Lewandowski on Creating a Recovery-Friendly Workplace

Key to helping people with substance abuse disorders is providing workplaces that don't shame or stigmatize. New Hampshire's Recovery Friendly Workplace initiative is doing just that by educating employers and employees and providing much-needed resources 

By Mike Beirne, Senior Editor | September 3, 2020
Construction worker silhouette on construction site with cranes
A supportive workplace can make all the difference in helping employees cope with and overcome substance abuse disorders. | Photo: Piqsels
Samantha Lewandowski, a Recovery Friendly Advisor
Samantha Lewandowski
Recovery Friendly Advisor
Granite United Way

New Hampshire Governor Christopher Sununu is also a ski lodge owner/operator and has seen the struggle of hospitality and restaurant employees with opioid addiction firsthand. The Granite State is among the hardest hit in the nation for fatal overdoses per capita, and employers across the country lose more than $100 billion annually due to employee drug and alcohol use, resulting in lost productivity, tardiness, turnover, and worker’s compensation claims. So Sununu started the Recovery Friendly Workplace (RFW) in March 2018, an initiative that encourages employers to create a workplace culture that supports employee recovery and boosts their productivity. Samantha Lewandowski, a full time advisor in the program who works with construction and remodeling companies, among others, talks about the initiative that has become a model for workplace recovery efforts in at least 15 other states.

 

PRO BUILDER: What tools are available for an employer to empower an employee’s recovery?

Samantha Lewandowski: I am a Recovery Friendly Advisor for this initiative, so my role is to work one on one with workplaces. I see my role as being a connector, connecting workplaces to information and resources around substance abuse disorder and recovery and linking people at workplaces to their peers.

It’s definitely important to get employers connected to peers. This can be hugely helpful because in the construction industry, companies are all going through some similar things, but also, maybe the restaurant industry could relate to the construction industry's challenges, too. Or maybe the restaurant industry has its own specific set of challenges. If I have an HR person in a construction company with questions, I can connect them with another HR department in another company so they can get into those details because their peer has more perspective on the issue because they've been dealing with it already. 

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In addition, we connect businesses to local public health networks and to local community organizations that provide peer-based nonclinical support—offered at no cost. What we try to do is tap the core competencies of these available resources.

Our initiative makes it easier for employees who have been affected [by substance abuse] to come forward and have that conversation [with their employers]. If people are feeling stigma and shame and think that if they come forward to ask for help they may get fired, that will keep them closeted with regard to their recovery. Or maybe an employer has someone who is doing really well with their recovery but they need an hour during the day to get to a [recovery-related] meeting and they're embarrassed to ask for that. If they feel empowered to come forward and say, "This is part of my well-being and my plan for my health," and they know their employer will be supportive, I think that’s a huge part of it—creating a positive, supportive culture. 

Our initiative makes it easier for employees who have been affected [by substance abuse] to come forward and have that conversation [with their employers].

We also do a lot of education around 211 and The Doorway program. Someone looking for treatment or support can call 211 at any time, 365 days a year. If they do that, they will get into the Doorway system, which acts as a central hub for walking people through a process that can otherwise feel overwhelming and difficult.

Prior to the Doorway program, if you were looking for treatment, you would have had to call provider after provider, and each time after answering a series of stigmatizing questions, you might find out that you don’t even qualify or there's some other kind of barrier. The Doorway program has an intake process; right up front, they ask you all of those questions in a supportive way and help you navigate getting into treatment. 

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If there's a gap between services and you can’t get into a program right away, Doorway will help you figure out a plan to bridge that.

In addition, some of our employers have employee assistance programs, so we have conversations around that. Some employers are interested in incorporating more recovery into their company policy. And, while we don’t write policy, we offer resources for doing that, and we can connect employers to other peers who have dug into that exercise. 

Every workplace that participates in the Recovery Friendly Workplace initiative has access to an RFW advisor. Part of my role is to be a sounding board. We have a structured process we follow for each workplace that includes a checklist and certain core elements that are required for a workplace to be an RFW. If an employer ever gets stuck or wants to take things further, or to figure out how to customize the program more, they can reach out to us to assist with that. I think that removes some of the risk from workplaces, so they can focus on working on the process of culture change.

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  • Samantha Lewandowski is the Recovery Friendly Advisor for Stan Parker, owner of SBP Builders, in Littleton, N.H. To learn how the recovery culture has helped Parker's business and his employees flourish, watch this video on the Sept. 3 episode of The Weekly on HorizonTV.

 

PB: You mention the Doorway system of referral and treatment. Can you explain what that is and why time is of the essence when someone is motivated to seek recovery help? 

SL: What we find is that for people going through recovery or those seeking recovery, there is often a time-sensitive or time-limited window where they’re motivated and are ready and willing to take that step. The sooner we can remove any barriers from their way the better because when people get doors slammed in their faces, after a certain point, they become discouraged. We want to make it easy to get into recovery programs when people are ready. We want to capitalize on that readiness.   

 

PB: How do you recruit employers? Do they come to you? And if they do, does that mean they've changed their mindset from firing an employee who tests positive for drug use to thinking they must help the employee?

SL: We see such a wide array of workplaces, but I will say that for a workplace that chooses to be part of the initiative, they need to be at a certain level of readiness and willingness because we do invite that shift in stigma perception and we do connect them to a lot of resources. So, from the get-go there is some level of employer buy-in. We see employers at a variety of stages in terms of readiness. Some have more stigma present than others; some have a more in-depth understanding of addiction and how recovery works; some want to learn more. 

In terms of businesses coming to us, that can happen through word of mouth or maybe they saw a presentation about what we do. One of our communities is SOS Recovery Community Organization. They have an entire workplace onboard with the initiative, and they've done some calling and stopping by businesses just to let them know about the program and they've been very successful in that. That was interesting; to see someone just go cold-calling and be pretty successful in having these conversations and getting people to participate. 

We also try to have the program director, Shannon Bresaw, attend various networking events.

 

PB: What elements need to be present in a Recovery Friendly Workplace?

SL: We try to have structure and to also make the RFW customizable. When our program director was fleshing out the program's details and working with the governor, she was drawing on different research for evidence about what makes a really effective program. We've found that allowing a degree of customization is effective. 

Our core requirements include getting an RFW advisor and doing an orientation session with the employer's leadership where we go over the initiative and assess where the company is at with its readiness, as well as talking about next steps, discussing the employer's needs, and making sure we have initial buy-in.

The next step is declaration. That's where employers let their employees know the company is participating in the RFW initiative and what that means. That step challenges stigma right off the bat because you’re getting the word out and letting employees know, "Hey, if I’m affected, I know I actually could come forward and find a place of support where I know I'm not being judged."

We have substance-free workplaces that are also recovery friendly. There is a misperception that if being substance-free is the employer's policy, then that employer isn't joining the [RFW] initiative.

We don’t mandate that companies create or change policy. However, if they want to make their policy more recovery-friendly, we welcome that and can provide resources. For example, one training we offer is about growing your RFW. It's policy-focused training that incorporates best practices. What we’re looking at is this continuum of readiness. Say there is one workplace that doesn’t know anything about recovery or viewing it as a health issue; we want to move them toward being supportive. There are other workplaces doing a lot within the space with teaching and training. Those employers can become leaders for the initiative or a peer that would be willing to talk to other employers and share what they’ve learned. It’s about moving employers along that continuum. 

We ask workplaces to disseminate information and resources about recovery to their employees and to do at least one annual training about recovery, remedial health, or something along those lines. We also ask that employers connect with community recovery organizations and that employers review their policies, if they already have them in place.

We have substance-free workplaces that are also recovery friendly. There is a misperception that if being substance-free is the employer's policy, then that employer isn't joining the initiative. But that's not the case at all. In fact, we work with a very large manufacturer that has a federal requirement to be substance-free.

What we've found is that there is a way to be supportive and a way to word things, and a way to work with employees that do have an issue in a supportive way, as opposed to having a one-strike-you’re-out mentality.

 

PB: What specific tactics are supervisors trained to use to foster an RFW?

SL: One thing we're passionate about is education about language that is person-first or person-centered—what terms can easily be swapped in for more commonly used language, so they're less stigmatizing and more supportive. For example, instead of saying "junkie," say "person with a substance-abuse disorder." It’s a different way of speaking about it, but what we find is that when we change the words we use, we change the way we think about substance abuse and recovery and we positively influence how other people are thinking about it and the stigma they’re experiencing. 

My background is in community development, and one thing I love about the RFW initiative that's really important is how it empowers people to work out issues in their workplace without eroding their capacity to do so. Our initiative provides structure in a way that maintains momentum. We’re also giving workplaces the space they need to figure out how much they want to do. A good amount of work comes from the workplace having meetings and conversations with an RFW advisor. There are also conversations with the company owners and leaders about what an RFW would look like for them. 

... one thing I love about the RFW initiative that's really important is how it empowers people to work out issues in their workplace ... . Our initiative provides structure in a way that maintains momentum.

We have people in recovery training where there are a lot of questions about addressing stigma. We have Substance Abuse Disorder 101 [training]. A lot of that is about encouraging people to be more supportive about recovery and for employers to have more conversations about what to do when an employee comes to them saying he or she has a substance abuse disorder.

Company leadership is more focused on implementation. With employees, it’s more about getting them information and resources and having employees also buy in to the process of combatting stigma. There is the desire to get things organized from a [human resources] standpoint, especially in larger organizations, but we also have workplaces that are community-facing. Take the library, for example. It may already have supportive people and may be looking at how to be even more of a supportive place for library patrons. It’s neat to see all of the ways people take this initiative.

 

PB: What is empathy training? Are you teaching tactics employers can use to show empathy?

SL: That's the goal of a lot of the training. You’re not going to hear us say, "You need to be empathetic." The idea is to provide information and training about substance use disorder that would naturally create more empathy in people.

Two trainings we do are a lived-experience panel with people in recovery who talk about their life before recovery and how they entered recovery. They also talk about when they started using substances and when they started having a problem and how they got out of that. That's really powerful for many people.

We also do a business panel where we connect businesspeople to their peers. We bring in people from different Recovery Friendly Workplaces and have them talk about their policies. Then we open it up to Q&A and take questions from the audience. It’s a great opportunity to pose questions to a variety of leaders and HR professionals. 

 

Mike Beirne is the senior editor of Professional Builder and Custom Builder magazines. A two-time Jesse H. Neal Award winner, Mike has nearly 30 years of journalism experience plus numerous news and feature writing awards, including honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Business Press Editors, and the National Association of Real Estate Editors. He also operated a masonry restoration business for more than two decades.

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