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How Can Employers Help When Workers Struggle With Substance Use?

CU Anschutz centers partner in statewide response to workplace mental health and substance use

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Written by Laura Veith on May 12, 2023
What You Need To Know

Centers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus are partnering with state leaders and employers to help employees in recovery through the Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative.

It’s no secret that Coloradans are struggling with substance use and mental health issues.

Nearly 20% of Coloradans struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide, according to the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration. In 2020, 1,477 Coloradans died of drug overdoses – the most overdose deaths ever recorded in the state, and a 38% increase from 2019 – according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

These individual experiences, part of the national behavioral health crisis, do not stay at the doorstep when employees enter the workplace. The experiences with substance use and addiction are equally present at work and at home and are impacting the risk to both employers and employees.

The Center for Health, Work & Environment (CHWE) at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) and the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Studies are responding to this national mental health crisis and substance use epidemic. This emergency requires a strong joint effort between public health organizations, policymakers, and employers. 

With federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, CHWE and the Consortium partnered to develop and launch the Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative. Colorado is steadily increasing access to treatment for opioid and other substance use disorders and ensuring support for people in recovery – of which employment is a critical aspect. The project works with partners and employers to educate businesses, guiding them in creating workplaces that support workers with common behavioral health conditions including substance use and addiction.

“We see this as a real opportunity as a bridge between businesses and what we do in Total Worker Health®,” said Lili Tenney, DrPH, director of outreach and programs at CHWE and assistant professor in the ColoradoSPH’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. “First and foremost, we are working to improve worker safety, health and well-being through prevention and employee support. Workplaces can address the major risks of substance use – both on and off the job.”

Recovery friendly workplaces

Addressing this issue in the workplace is a key strategy. Across multiple avenues, the Recovery Friendly Workplace Initiative has and continues to convene leaders from across the state to be the voice of employers on this issue and to guide the priorities for enabling the business community to act.

“Treatment is just the beginning of a person's journey to long-term recovery,” said Robert Valuck, PhD, RPh, executive director of the Consortium and professor in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy. “Substance use disorders happen to employees in all sorts of workplaces, just like they do everywhere in society. Identifying workers with use disorders and providing them with opportunities to seek and obtain treatment, and have employment as they recover, is critical to employee and workplace health and vitality.”

Chancellor Elliman and attorney general join effort

As part of the effort, the group collaborated with experts at the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center to host a peer learning series, modeled after ECHO, to convene 40 business leaders over four months to hear from mental health and workplace health specialists, collaborate and learn. In January, 45 business leaders gathered for a stakeholder meeting to discuss the vision and goals for Colorado’s first group dedicated to this collective effort. The Recovery Friendly Workplace Workgroup currently consists of 55 members who are leading the priorities in the state for employer engagement and action.

On June 8, CHWE and the Consortium will co-host an event at CU Anschutz that will feature speakers including Chancellor Don Elliman and representatives from the Colorado Attorney General’s office. Leaders will review current and future approaches to addressing Colorado’s opioid crisis response and strengthen the combined efforts between public health, employers and state government. For more information on this event, please visit here.

Employer resources

CHWE and the Consortium have released tools and resources to help establish recovery-friendly workplaces. The Consortium released the Colorado Recovery Friendly Workplace Toolkit – a comprehensive document that enables employers to take the first steps in supporting all employees, especially those in recovery from addiction. The Workplace Mental Health Module, offered through Health Links®, CHWE’s employer advising program, includes an organizational survey, toolkit, customized recommendations and one-on-one advising to help improve employee mental health and resiliency.

“This project is a cross-campus collaboration, which is critical,” said Valuck. “The multidisciplinary effort reflects how we work together on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, both in research and education. The campus is a leader in these initiatives, and such leadership is needed now more than ever.”