Last week, our New Hampshire affiliate, Granite Pathways, hosted its first Solution Series business forum to discuss ways that addressing employee mental illness and substance use disorder can improve the bottom line. The forum was a great success and feedback suggests that many of the business leaders, government representatives, and nonprofit agency staff who attended were inspired to bring their learning back to their own workplaces.
The facts are that businesses who are intentional about assisting their employees who appear to be in trouble, and who compassionately work to support them in treatment and recovery, will experience a high return on their investment. Working through education to prevent substance use issues, intervening when and if an employee presents with an issue, and retaining those employees once they have gone through treatment can yield qualitative and quantitative results. A study done by the U.S. Navy revealed that for every dollar spent on investing in recovery, there is a $10 yield in savings.
The facts about how the workplace can support individuals in recovery are irrefutable. In the meantime, however, it was the story of one of the panelists that proved particularly compelling.
“John” was a busy regional sales manager who traveled up and down the east coast on a regular basis. He trained busy sales staff, met with prospective clients, and managed several sales staff throughout the company. His job was stressful and busy and travel away from home was always a challenge, particularly because his daughter suffered from mental health issues and whose behavior was unpredictable at best.
One night, while John was away, he got the call that his daughter had attempted suicide and was hospitalized. John was slated for a large presentation the next morning, but opted to rent a car and speed home to be with his daughter. He called in sick the next day and didn’t tell anyone that anything was wrong at home. He felt so guilty about leaving work that he didn’t put in for the expense of his missed plane ticket or for the car rental. He worried that he would be reprimanded for calling in sick or that he would have to miss other important work meetings. All the while, he was carrying the weight of his daughter’s suicide attempt and the inevitable long-term fallout.
Months later, he could no longer keep his family situation from his supervisor. One day, he went into her office and told her what had happened. His supervisor listened intently, and then said simply, “Yes. The answer is always yes. You must put your family first, and we will support you. What can we do?”
After that meeting, John felt a newfound freedom to care for his family in ways he had not felt he could in the past. As a result of his supervisor’s concern and genuine compassion, as well as the company’s culture that reflected the same compassion, John felt a strong loyalty to the company and a desire to work even harder to be successful.
While there are policies in place that support employees as they look after loved ones who are sick, such as Family Medical Leave, many employees, like John, are reluctant to take advantage of them because they fear being stigmatized about their own mental health or substance use challenges or as in John’s case, that of a family member. But the power of John’s story, told first hand, is the story of the power of transformation and of what is possible if workplaces are deliberate and intentional about supporting their employees as they work to overcome their own mental health or substance issues. Supporting employees—and their families—is not just about mental health and substance use disorders, but it is ultimately about employee health and safety. Every employee should know the warning signs of a co-worker in trouble. Every supervisor should know how to deal compassionately with an employee who exhibits warning signs. And every employee should feel safe to reach out to their supervisors for help. What we know is that the workplace is a common space—and a common catalyst—for people with mental health or substance issues. There is a great opportunity in the workplace to address and support recovery in a concrete and active way.
John’s story highlights the power of transformation and of what’s possible—when workplaces strive to support rather than stigmatize their employees.
I welcome your thoughts.