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Leaders Should Address Addiction in the Workplace and Normalize Seeking Help

October 22, 2019, 6:09 PM UTC
025rFORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit 2019rOctober 22nd, 2019 rWashington, DCrr10:55 AMrMPW PROGRAM TRACK CONCURRENT SESSIONS rMENTAL HEALTH & ADDICTIONrPoignant stories of the faces of addiction—the personal costs, the economic costs, and promising ideas and initiatives to tackle the seemingly insurmountable problemrLaura Hutfless, Partner, FlyteVurJan Rader, Fire Chief, Huntington, West Virginia; TIME 100 Honoree, subject of the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary Heroin(e)rClaire Sterk, President, Emory rUniversityrFran Phillips,r Deputy Secretary for Public Health Services, Maryland Department of Health (confirmed)rSherrie Rollins Westin,rPresident, Social Impact and Philanthropy, Sesame Workshop rrModerator: Nina Easton, FORTUNErrPhotograph by Stuart Isett for Fortune
Stuart Isett for Fortune

There were 70,237 deaths due to drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same year, 19.7 million American adults dealt with substance abuse, reports the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. 

When it comes to addiction and mental health, businesses have a particular role to play by addressing it in the workplace. Employers have leverage to offer more support for their employees—particularly when it comes to coverage, said Fran Phillips, deputy secretary for public health services in Maryland, during a panel discussion about mental health and addiction at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.

But beyond that, businesses can normalize seeking help for addiction, and addressing mental health issues. Just as a company would bring in experts to discuss heart disease, wellness, and fitness, leadership should also bring in experts to talk about addiction, suggested Laura Hutfless, a partner at FlyteVu, an entertainment marketing agency based in Nashville.

“As a company, you’re making a statement that you are accepted, and we are not judging this, but we want you do get the help that you need,” Hutfless said. 

And while managers should consider learning the signs and symptoms of addiction, what is “very doable in your role as a leader” is to look out for employees who have had a shift in behavior and aren’t “performing up to par,” said Jan Rader, the fire chief of Huntington, W. Va. and also a subject in the Netflix documentary Heroin(e). Rader suggested that companies should require that employees seek help, and insist upon clearance from an assistance program or a mental health professional before they can return to work. 

To truly address addiction, beyond recognizing it’s a medical issue, there needs to be a safe place to “offload pain,” Hutfless said, whether it’s within communities or within companies.

More must-read stories from Fortune’s MPW Summit:

—How a corporate board can engage on company culture
—Female directors agree a “blunt instrument is necessary” to get women on boards
—How to avoid the biggest ‘decision trap’ in business
—Peloton’s CFO has “so much sympathy” for WeWork
Corporate pivots are often disruptive. They don’t have to be
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