Governor Sununu's 'Recovery Friendly Workplace' Initiative Slow to Take Shape

Feb 27, 2019

On a recent Friday afternoon, Annika Stanley-Smith made her way to the downtown Concord offices of Tufts Health Freedom Plan. The company had been waiting months for this meeting, an orientation on Governor Chris Sununu’s Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative.

The program asks business leaders to pledge their support to workers struggling with addiction in exchange for an official designation from the governor’s office, as well as free training and consultation on substance use-related issues.

For the orientation, Stanley-Smith, a local public health worker, gathered employees in the company’s small conference room. After walking through the initiative’s goals and history, she turned to a to-do list, tasks the firm would have to complete before getting its official Recovery Friendly designation.

The list is short.

First, submit a letter of interest in the program. For Tufts Health Freedom Plan, that's done. Next, have an orientation. That’s this meeting. Third, communicate to employees that the company has committed to destigmatizing addiction and supporting workers through the recovery process.

At this point, Tufts Health Freedom Plan President Gerri Vaughan cut in, surprised that more wouldn’t be required to achieve this designation. “I actually thought the lift in this would be a lot bigger,” she said.

Local business and drug recovery leaders packed the Executive Council chambers for Governor Chris Sununu's announcement of the Recovery Friendly Workplace program's nationwide launch last March.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

She’s not alone in her reaction. It’s incredibly easy, the group agrees, a clear step forward to raise awareness around alcohol and drug misuse. 

But Vaughan’s surprise also reflects questions around the initiative’s impact and scope.

Governor Sununu has celebrated the program over the past year as a key part of broader strategies to address the state's ongoing opioid crisis and tight labor market.

“It’s working, it’s exciting!” he cheered in his inaugural address in January.

By many measures, though, it’s still getting off the ground.

Critical staff, including a program director and recovery friendly advisors who will serve as consultants to businesses on addiction-related issues, were only recently hired. Nearly $1 million in grants aimed at funding training programs for businesses has yet to go out.

And though Sununu has pointed to tens of thousands of workers now employed at recovery friendly businesses, that figure includes businesses at all stages of the designation process, including some that have simply sent in their letter of interest to the program, according to Program Director Shannon Bresaw.

Plus, about a quarter of the workplaces on the Recovery Friendly rolls are providers of addiction treatment or recovery services. Others are homeless shelters and other social service groups. These are organizations that are already well versed in supporting individuals with addiction.

Still, Bresaw said, interested businesses continue to contact the program, which is now well positioned for growth. “I am really confident in the work that we’ve done over the last few weeks, and I'm really confident in our plan moving forward,” she said. “It takes time to do things the right way.”

She and others also point to the significance of having buy-in from the business community.

Employers have historically been hesitant to commit to supporting workers with addiction, said Cameron Ford, who runs Headrest, an addiction treatment center in Lebanon. There are concerns around safety, particularly in the manufacturing and construction industries, and stigmas around addiction as a moral failing, he said, rather than a treatable disease.

Headrest's official Recovery Friendly designation, signed by Sununu. Headrest is one of several addiction treatment providers around the state to quickly join the Recovery Friendly Workplace program, largely as a show of support.
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

Ford and his colleagues have been working to develop relationships with local employers, creating a program to connect individuals leaving Headrest's treatment program with careers.

“Some (employers) are pretty adamant - they don’t want anything to do with it,” he said. “And others say, my gosh, we’ve been looking for this kind of help. What can you offer?”

Studies show drug and alcohol misuse takes a significant toll on businesses in the form of lower worker productivity and absenteeism.

Particularly in today’s tight labor market, Ford and others argue, businesses stand to save money by supporting workers with addiction treatment and resources, rather than showing them the door.

But it's yet to be seen how widely the model will catch on. 

Last March, in a crowded press conference at the Statehouse, Sununu announced the “nationwide” launch of the Recovery Friendly program, pointing to Rhode Island as having already joined.

In Rhode Island, though, the effort will take a different form. For now, according to Governor Gina Raimondo’s office, the state is working to post online resources for businesses. And even that, a website, isn’t yet live.

Beyond the Ocean State, it’s unclear if there truly is any national traction. David Mara, who has been spearheading the Recovery Friendly effort in the governor's office, said he's had calls with a number of other states, but none have so far formally adopted the Recovery Friendly banner.