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.
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 company wide 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
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.
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.
By Christopher J. Swift, chairman and CEO of The Hartford.