Hampshire HOPE: Toolkit aims to help employers, business owners navigate opioid epidemic

Published: 9/3/2020 10:54:34 AM

Inspiration for Hampshire HOPE’s workplace toolkit project now nearing fruition came during trainings for local employers, managers and business owners on how to use the life-saving overdose reversal drug Narcan. 

In addition to instructions on how to administer Narcan, trainings presented by HOPE coordinator J. Cherry Sullivan and DART coordinator Michele Farry included information on the physiology of addiction. At one session, Sullivan spotted a moment of understanding in a manager who was speaking about her employees.

 “She said, ‘Oh, you mean if someone has a substance use disorder, I should treat it like a medical condition?’” Sullivan recalls.


And so began an effort to develop a comprehensive guide to help businesses and workplaces respond to patrons, customers and employees struggling with substance use disorders. The toolkit outlines the legal responsibilities and ethical obligations employers carry for employees, suggests ways to support employees in recovery and provides information about substance use disorder as well as advice on how to respond to overdoses in public bathrooms, sample policies and a host of other resources.

It became clear to HOPE’s leadership team — Sullivan, Farry and Northampton Health Director Merridith O’Leary — that there was an unmet need.

“There was a desire to talk about this really important topic,” said Sullivan. “Over and over, we would get questions from managers. They were at a loss as to how to respond to employees with substance use disorder, how to support them, what were their rights and responsibilities.”

People expressed concern about overdoses in public bathrooms or employees whose work was impacted by substance use.

“They were feeling compassionate, but confused,” Sullivan said. “They were really trying to understand how the physiology of addiction played out in the person and in the workplace.”

That led the HOPE team to contract with us to develop the workplace toolkit. We are longtime residents of Northampton and Amherst and former colleagues and senior executives at a large behavioral health agency.

At one organization, we worked together to create and implement trauma-informed workplace practices. With Stan’s expertise as a clinician and administrator in the field of addiction and mental health for 35 years and Amy’s 35-plus years as a human resources professional, we set out to work with HOPE on a toolkit that could be a user-friendly resource. 

We wanted to offer a comprehensive guide where employers could go for answers to their varied questions and find help addressing pressing concerns. An overarching goal was education to reduce stigma.

“I want to increase understanding about substance use disorder,” says Sullivan. “By doing that, we can create policies and practices that really support the whole person and bring the humanity they deserve to the workplace.”

We see the toolkit as a go-to resource for managers and employees. We also hope business owners and employers will use it to guide them in creating environments that support health and wellness.

Recovery-friendly workplaces are important because supporting people and families in recovery actually creates a more safe, trusting environment for all employees, can reduce absenteeism and staff turnover and can increase employee retention and productivity.

Our guide offers concrete suggestions, provides sample policies and answers questions such as:

What can employers do legally, ethically and humanely to work with struggling employees? 

How can employers support valued employees in their recovery? 

What are ways employers can accommodate employees pursuing treatment and recovery?

How can they help staff who have witnessed the overdose or even death from overdose of a customer in their business?

How can employees ensure they are protected as they pursue treatment and recovery?

How do businesses help prevent overdoses?

Questions like these become more urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indicators from around the country suggest significant increases in overdoses largely due to factors brought on by the pandemic, including job loss, extreme isolation, financial stressors and relapse. 

Employers have a unique role to play by offering humane and progressive responses to support health and well-being. Hampshire HOPE’s toolkit provides accurate information about drug use and misuse; resources for treatment, recovery support and training; Narcan and overdose prevention information and protocols; employee legal rights, responsibilities and protections related to drug use and treatment; employer legal rights and responsibilities with regard to federal, state and local laws; guidance on how to talk with employees about performance concerns that may be impacted by substance use or addiction; and information about how to develop and maintain a recovery-friendly workplace

Hampshire HOPE is in the process of working with focus groups to make sure that the toolkit is meeting their needs. The toolkit will be available on a newly designed section of the Hampshire Hope website in the coming months. We see this toolkit as a living document responsive to local needs. Meanwhile, another project in the works is the development of a certification process for workplaces that take steps to become recovery-friendly. Stay tuned for more information.

Amy S. Klein, MA, is a human resources consultant. Stan Schapiro, LICSW, is a consulting clinical social worker. The Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition is run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Hampshire HOPE members contribute to this monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.
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