August 17, 2023

Funding Needed for Recovery Friendly Workplace Programs, Report Finds

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), in collaboration with NIOSH, has released a report identifying the achievements of recovery friendly workplaces and the challenges faced by these programs (PDF). RFWs are a relatively recent nationwide effort to prevent and address substance use disorders and the opioid overdose crisis, which the congressional Joint Economic Committee estimates cost the U.S. $1.5 trillion in 2020. The first RFW was established in New Hampshire only four years ago, in 2019.

RFW programs strive to create safe, healthy workplaces “by reducing the chance of injury and the subsequent use of opioids, providing support for workers who are struggling, and facilitating opportunities for employment for people in treatment and recovery,” according to the report. However, the report also found that many RFW programs struggle to obtain sufficient funding, receive support from employers and labor organizations, and overcome stigma associated with substance use disorders.

The NIEHS report describes the findings of a survey of 47 RFW programs. While 25 respondents, or 53 percent, indicated that they represented established RFW programs, the remainder reported that their programs were in formative or developmental stages or did not answer the question. Therefore, while the respondents represented programs across 31 states, the report’s authors believe that about two-thirds of states are lacking established RFW programs.

Respondents reported a broad range of activities conducted by their programs, including outreach, education and training, RFW certification, improving access to treatment and recovery resources, and reforming punitive workplace drug policies. However, the specific activities conducted by each program varied. Only 17 percent of respondents indicated that their services addressed prevention of workplace injuries and pain management. Although one program indicated that it had conducted more than 50 community outreach programs, 43 percent of respondents had conducted fewer than 50 community programs. Fifty-five percent responded that they conducted no programs, indicated that the question was not applicable to them, or did not answer the question. Thirty percent of respondents reported that they provided peer support for workers.

Although respondents’ outreach to employers ranged from zero to 200 interactions, most programs did not focus on employer outreach and job placement. Forty percent of respondents did not do outreach, reported that the question was inapplicable, or did not answer the question. Eighty-seven percent reported that they had not placed program participants in jobs, reported that job placement was not applicable to their program, were unsure, or did not answer the question.

In its section on survey methods and limitations, the report notes that some respondents’ failure to answer all the questions “is most likely due to the uneven development of RFW programs.” Only 28 percent of respondents indicated that their organizations employed full-time staff.

Respondents cited funding, as well as employer buy-in and stigma, as the top three challenges to establishing and maintaining RFWs. The report concludes with a recommendation that federal agencies, including the Department of Labor and the National Institutes of Health, consider specifically funding the establishment and development of RFW programs.

“The RFW programs around the country are innovators doing a tremendous amount of good work with very few resources,” the report states. “It is time to expand these efforts through funding and sharing of successful interventions and practices including strategies for outreach, training, prevention, certification, peer support, and policy and stigma reform.”

The “Recovery Friendly Workplace Landscape Analysis” report, along with an addendum profiling findings from each state, may be downloaded from the NIEHS’ National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training. More information about the report and the RFW program may be found in an Aug. 7 NIOSH Science Blog post.

Related: The NIEHS Worker Training Program published a document highlighting initiatives to address opioids in the workplace in February 2022.