A guide for companies that want to fight the stigma around opioid addiction

July 6, 2020, 11:00 PM UTC
how companies can help fight the stigma around opioid addiction
Businesswomen in discussion during team meeting in office conference room
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

While the entire globe has been focused on battling COVID-19, our nation’s ongoing opioid crisis has not disappeared. In fact, it may be worsening.

Early data from the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, a federally funded national surveillance tool, shows that drug overdoses are increasing during the pandemic, and local medical and law enforcement authorities across the U.S. are reporting spikes in overdose calls and deaths.

Public health officials fear the pandemic could spark a wave of new addictions due to increased drug and alcohol use linked to historic unemployment, as well as isolation fostered by state shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. One study by Well Being Trust estimated the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to 75,000 Americans dying from drug or alcohol misuse or suicide.

Opioid addictions are a financial problem for businesses, of course, but the toll in human suffering is far greater and more disturbing. Even in “normal” times, too many people who privately struggle with addiction do not reach out for help for fear of being judged. Fewer than one in five Americans are willing to be a friend, colleague, or neighbor of someone who is addicted to prescription drugs, according to a survey conducted by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. 

I have learned from interactions with our nonprofit partner Shatterproof—and with colleagues who have lost loved ones to a drug overdose—that one of the most impactful ways to fight this national crisis is to take on the stigma associated with addiction.

Often, the language used when discussing addiction includes words that contribute to the stigma and shame, such as “drug abuse,” “addict,” and “clean and dirty” blood tests.

I personally have seen, as CEO, how I can change the perception of addiction by leading a companywide dialogue. I encourage all business leaders to drive cultural change within their companies and change the way we think and talk about addiction so that we can remove the hurdle of stigma for those who might otherwise seek timely help.

First, leaders need to educate themselves before leading a companywide dialogue on this once-taboo topic. They can learn by listening to local health experts and reading educational websites. Then they must ensure everyone in the company has access to these resources. 

For example, on our company’s intranet, every article about the opioid crisis includes a link to an educational website offered through our Shatterproof partnership. Companies can provide addiction resources to employees in a number of ways, including links to the websites of federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, within emails delivered to all employees.

Leaders can kick off a companywide conversation about addiction in many ways, such as an all-hands meeting. For me, it was a public call to action to companies, communities, and citizens to work together to end the opioid crisis in 2018. I outlined how the opioid crisis was taking a heavy toll on employers and employees who need addiction education and support such as employee assistance programs. My call to action was published externally on a magazine’s website, as well as on our intranet.

Because I have talked openly and nonjudgmentally about the opioid crisis and addiction, employees at The Hartford have felt more comfortable talking about these topics as well.

Our employees have responded by sharing their accounts of helping family members with substance misuse, losing loved ones to overdose, and volunteering at community organizations, such as Shatterproof Rise Up Against Addiction 5Ks. They have written blogs and social media posts on our intranet, which is like a social media platform allowing them to quickly create and share, and shared their thoughts with the entire company. One employee discussed her son’s struggle with opioid misuse. Another employee told the story of her 25-year-old daughter who died of a drug overdose. Others have reflected on losing a family member, friend, or neighbor as a result of the opioid epidemic.

In an intranet post, Allie Doney, who works as a senior legal assistant in our East Windsor, N.J., office, described her brother’s battle with opioid addiction after sustaining hockey injuries, which eventually led to him dying of a drug overdose. She tackled misconceptions about opioids and addiction: “This epidemic does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter your age, your ethnicity, race, religion, how much money you have in the bank, where you grew up—nothing.”

To continue the dialogue in a highly visible way, I engaged employees by commenting directly on their posts. Doing so was important to show that our company’s leadership stood behind them. In a small face-to-face meeting, I met with Allie and other employees whose loved ones died of drug overdose, asking to hear their stories and how our company could better support them.

Business leaders also have the responsibility to ensure that managers are empowered with information about the company’s benefits and health resources. They can direct their human resources and communications teams to educate managers so they can spot the signs of substance misuse and connect employees to support and treatment. They also can instruct their HR teams to talk with benefit providers, such as workers’ compensation and disability insurers, about addiction prevention strategies. Also, HR can speak with health care and prescription providers about improving access to treatment, including telemedicine and digital options.

Finally, as business leaders, we must use our voices to champion effective public policy solutions that address the addiction crisis. Over the last year, I connected with state and federal lawmakers regarding public policies dealing with the opioid epidemic. These discussions have focused on opioid prescription duration and dosage restrictions; mandatory physician and provider education about appropriate prescription opioid use; states’ prescription drug monitoring programs, which are electronic databases of prescriptions within the state that can help identify and deter or prevent drug misuse; and the adoption of restrictive drug formularies, which are lists that designate specific prescriptions for medical conditions.

Prior to the pandemic, we saw progress resulting from our nationwide, multi-stakeholder response. Now, in the face of COVID-19, adequate funding remains critical. I am encouraged to see federal lawmakers prioritizing the inclusion of substance use disorder and mental health funding in the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and other legislative proposals, such as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act.

There’s more to be done at the individual level as well.

Let us all commit to removing stigmatizing language from our vocabulary. It’s something that can be done no matter where we live or work.  

Instead of “drug abuse,” we can say “substance use disorder.” Instead of “junkie,” we can say “person with a substance use disorder.” Instead of “reformed addict,” we can say “person in recovery.” 

Most important, we can foster empathy and hope instead of stigma—and together, we can overcome the crisis that the pandemic has compounded.

Christopher J. Swift is chairman and CEO of The Hartford.

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