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How Businesses Are Tackling Addiction’s Mounting Toll on U.S. Workers

December 12, 2019, 3:21 AM UTC

Business leaders are increasingly facing the toll of substance abuse on their workforce — and need to do more to help both their affected workers and their bottom lines, according to executives at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit.

Addiction affects more than 20 million Americans directly. When family members of those impacted by substance abuse are factored in, nearly a third of all Americans are touched in some way by the disease. About 75% of those people are part of the workforce, according to a recent study by the National Safety Council, Shatterproof and NORC at the University of Chicago. 

It’s estimated that substance abuse problems cost the American economy about $442 billion dollars each year, and that businesses take the brunt of the hit due to absenteeism, lost productivity and healthcare costs. 

It’s time that corporations start treating mental health and substance abuse disorders with the same amount of care they treat physical ailments, if not for empathy’s sake then because of the undeniable economic impact, said a panel of experts at the Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Wednesday. 

“If someone had lung disease or heart disease, we’d be running 5Ks and putting their faces on T-shirts and raising money and posting on Facebook. But if someone has chronic addiction, you don’t want to say why that person is out of the office,” said Laura Hutfless, co-founder of FlyteVu, an entertainment marketing agency. Hutfless’s partner struggled with an opioid addiction that stemmed from trauma he experienced as a survivor of 1999’s Columbine High School shooting. He passed away this year. 

“For me, walking in as a company leader and sharing my story and making a safe place for that, I found out about so many people in my company that were struggling in different ways,” she said. “And it’s now not a taboo topic.”

In response, Hutfless rolled out company-wide wellness and mental health programs: “As a leader at your company, it’s important to normalize this.”

Larger companies are also working to train managers to be aware of the warning signs of addiction. “Addicts who are in denial are excellent at hiding, but eventually something is going to break. And what happens is it’s not so much performance but it could be personality, it could be just behavior changes,” said Katelyn Johnson, senior integrated health manager of global benefits at Cisco.

“We don’t expect our employees at Cisco to be experts in this space, but we do expect them to be conscious. We expect them to know their employees, to meet with their employees regularly and get to know their family. We want to create a space where they’re willing to open up and share, so if someone is ready to say ‘Hey, I’m struggling,’ we’re here for them,” she said. 

Cisco has instituted global working groups where employees can share their stories publicly in an effort to reduce the corporate stigma around addiction. 

But there’s more that companies need to do if they want to reduce the shame and secrecy often associated with substance abuse disorders, and to encourage employees to seek treatments, said Kristin Dahlquist, director of operations at the Institute of Addiction Science at the University of Southern California.

“I think a lot of people are afraid to mention that they are struggling with an addiction because there is a period of time where they need to seek treatment and they will lose their jobs,” she said. “If there are recovery groups in the workspace, that would begin to change the social norms, it shouldn’t be anonymous. We can’t have that anymore, it needs to be an option to not be anonymous and still be safe.”