Why employers may be the first line of defense against SUD and mental illness.

At Clarke Shoes and now at Easy Spirit we tried hard not to institutionalize the way that we interact with people, but instead we try to lead with our humanity.  This created a culture where people who were struggling with mental health or substance use disorders could ask for help—we worked to remove the stigma.” 

Jim Salzano, Easy Spirit Shoes

One of our mantras at Fedcap is “work completes treatment.” In other words, work leads to greater economic self-sufficiency, increased self-esteem, and ultimately healthy connection with colleagues—all antidotes to the roots of addiction. When an individual is employed and self-sufficient and working in an environment where the culture supports asking for help, many of the issues that led to addiction in the first place can be mitigated.

Jim Salzano, the CEO of Easy Spirit and prior CEO at Clark Shoes, has led the way in creating a culture of acceptance and support for employees who struggle with mental health or substance use disorders. Mr. Salzano will be joining us on Wednesday, March 30 for our Solution Series discussion on how to turn a workplace culture from fear and stigma around mental health and substance use issues to one of support and encouragement. We’ll also hear from Matt Sisk, the Deputy Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation who himself struggled with the fear and stigma as he made his own path to recovery. Brooke Wilson, from Aetna will speak about the ways an Employee Assistance Program can intervene and support businesses, and Adrienne Occhino of the Boston-based Kimpton Hotels will talk about ways her business is working to change the culture around addiction and mental health.

The most recent statistics suggest that 23.5 million people suffer with substance use disorder or SUD. Here’s the problem: substance use disorder leads to a huge hit to an employer’s bottom line through absenteeism, reduced productivity, increased risk of injuries and illness and exorbitant health care costs due to issues such as emergency room visits, disability, and worker’s comp claims. It is estimated that $276 billion dollars a year are incurred by employers in the cost of care due to employee substance abuse issues and untreated mental illness.

These statistics can be reversed.

Many of the people who struggle with addiction or mental illness do not choose to get help. They lack education about what treatment is available, they lack resources to pay for treatment, or, like Matt Sisk, they are worried about what their coworkers will think of them. Employers can make a huge impact. By implementing policies and education about issues around addiction and mental illness, they can begin to reverse the financial and human toll.

When employers do not appreciate and understand the tangible and intangible price of mental illness and addiction, their bottom lines will continue to be impacted in ways that could ultimately be prevented. And yet,  if employers do understand and act, they can lead the way in changing not only the course of those who suffer from addiction and/or mental illness, but also create a positive culture  while reducing stigma and modeling to the greater society how these individuals should be treated and supported.

Join us on March 30th from 8-9:30 a.m. for our Solution Series: Addressing Employee Mental Illness and Addiction—Improving Your Business Bottom Line. Our four panelists will offer concrete strategies and solutions for creating a supportive culture in the workplace for those who have mental health or substance use issues.


Stigma, mental illness, and SUD—changing the culture one contact at a time.

In 2014, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health conducted a survey of 700 people to determine their attitudes about employment of people in recovery from substance use disorder (SUD). 64% of those surveyed believed employers should be able to deny work to an individual with SUD; 57% percent believe that those individuals should have the same access to employment—and health insurance—as someone who does not struggle with SUD.

In a similar study in the U.K., 58% of respondents said they believe drug addiction results from a lack of willpower. 43% said that they didn’t want to live near someone with SUD.

Just as there are facts to prove that climate change exists, there are facts to prove that SUD and mental illness are real—this isn’t exactly new news, especially in our field. It’s not the facts—or lack of facts—that are the problem—it’s what people believe that calls forth the stigma—both from the public point of view, and from the point of view of the person who struggles with mental illness or SUD. The facts also bear out that shame is linked to substance use issues—and of course, if shame is a driver to SUD, then it is piled on as a consequence of public stigma.

Research tells us that there are three possible strategies to combat stigma: 1) protest—tell people they’re wrong. This strategy is basically reactive, but can serve to further awareness. I don’t believe it is a leading strategy for eliminating stigma. Then there’s: 2) education—a much more effective tool, which can lead to improved attitudes as people are confronted with facts. Unfortunately, those who have tucked away stereotypes or prejudices are not apt to embrace education that could disavow them of their beliefs.

The third way to combat stigma is contact—direct contact with those who would potentially be stigmatized. Contact is a simple, human answer to the problem of stigma. Getting to know someone removes barriers—true in any sphere. And, getting to know someone in a work environment, where it is clear that an individual can be a contributing, viable workmate is one of the chief ways to chip away at a culture that will inevitably shift as people get to know other people.

I am very excited about our upcoming Solution Series on March 30th —our 11th—which highlights two employers who have taken strides to support their employees with mental illness and substance use disorder. The policies, practices, and processes they have in place all serve to reduce—and ultimately eliminate—stigma through awareness, education, and most importantly, through day to day contact among employees. Please join us—and please feel free to share your thoughts about stigma—what do you do—every day—that can work toward eliminating stigma?

Supporting the mental health of our employees—solutions and strategies that work.

In a recent article in The Boston Globe, reporter Kara Baskin highlighted the consequences of the “unrelenting pace” work in the restaurant industry can take on its employees—including serious mental health issues and struggles with substance use. The restaurant business is indeed vulnerable, as is just about every sector that expects long hours and 24/7 commitment from its employees: healthcare, business, education and non-profits where resources are scarce and there is always more work to be done. The stigma around disclosing mental health or addiction issues is strong, but inroads are being made to offer concrete ways to stand behind the mantra of work-life balance.

Luckily, there are employers who are leading the way in offering solutions and strategies for their employees who wrestle with mental health or substance use recovery.



If you are a business owner or among the leaders of a vibrant non-profit, you will want to join us on March 30th for our 11th solution series discussion with three top industry leaders who will lay out their roadmaps for success in supporting their employees’ mental health and recovery efforts.