‘I’m Here to Help’: A Vermont Employer Supports Workers in Recovery | Paid Post | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
Tammy Bushell - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Tammy Bushell

When Tammy Bushell learned that her son was addicted to opioids six years ago, it caught her off guard. Her son was an adult, living on his own with a romantic partner.

“They had a great relationship,” she said. “And it was actually his significant other that brought it to my attention and said, ‘I can't do this anymore with him.’ It was an eye-opener.”

Once she found out, Bushell wasn’t sure where to turn. “It was a very difficult and scary time,” she recalled in a Zoom interview. “As a parent, I had no idea where to get help for him, how to help myself, how to help my family.”

She started learning about treatment options and resources, and she got involved with the Chittenden County Opiate Alliance. She also learned about the stigma that people struggling with substance use disorder can face, often through comments on social media.

“I had friends that would, you know, post things that were very offensive, right? That people that have an addiction — that was their choice, and they should just die. I mean, it was very painful,” she said.

That stigma often keeps people from sharing their struggles with substance use disorder. But it didn’t stop Bushell.

As she tried to help her son while working full time, she realized that she needed support from her employer — Edlund Company, a kitchen equipment manufacturer based in Burlington’s South End. And as the company’s director of human resources, she realized that she might be able to use her experience to do something positive for others dealing with similar issues.

“I just went to senior management and said, ‘I gotta tell you, this is what's going on in my life,’” she recalled. “I was very, very vocal, very blunt. And they were shocked. They were like, ‘I don't understand. You come from a good family. You have a good job.’”

Those things don’t matter, she told them. Substance use disorder can affect anyone.

“I told them, ‘I want to help other people that are struggling, and I want to be an employer that hires people in recovery,’” she said. “They jumped right in to support me 100 percent.”

Today Edlund is part of an emerging group of Vermont employers creating recovery-friendly workplaces. Employees who are in recovery for substance use disorder, or who are helping loved ones in recovery, can speak openly with their colleagues and supervisors about their experiences. No one will judge them or penalize them for it. Edlund also gives workers the flexibility to attend appointments or meetings and seek treatment, and it has certified peer recovery coaches on hand to offer employees additional support.

Cynthia Seivwright, director of the Vermont Department of Health’s Division of Alcohol and Drug Prevention, believes that this assistance is valuable. “Work is often an important part of our identity, and people with substance use disorder have much to offer,” she said. “For people in recovery, knowing that they have the support of their employer and colleagues can make a huge difference.”

‘We're Fully Staffed’

Bushell now appears in a video created by the Vermont Department of Health in partnership with HMC Advertising as part of its campaign to “End Addiction Stigma.” The campaign includes a website, EndAddictionStigmaVT.com, and connects people to VTHelplink.org — or 802-565-LINK — which offers referrals to support, treatment and recovery resources for people struggling with substance use disorder, as well as their families and friends.

In the video, Bushell explains that it’s worth investing time and energy in helping employees sustain their recovery.

“I do feel like somebody on the recovery path absolutely shows us that they're worth the fight,” she says in the 30-second spot. “They are really trying to not only better themselves but their family and the people around them.”

It’s a message that counters negative stereotypes about people in recovery, and it’s one that bears repeating, especially at a time when deaths from drug overdoses are at record highs.

It’s also a message that makes sense for Edlund’s bottom line. “Hiring people in recovery has affected our business in a positive way,” Bushell reports in the video.

In an interview, she said this approach has been good for the company when it comes to recruitment.  “I think once our employees are here, they realize, Wow, they really are listening to me, and they really understand, and they really are supporting me,” she said. “And they share that information with their friends.”

Right now, local manufacturers all across Vermont are desperate for workers. They can’t fill all their open positions. Edlund isn’t having that problem. “We’re fully staffed,” she said. “What does that tell you?”

‘I’m Here to Help’

Tammy Bushell - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Tammy Bushell

Though Bushell’s bosses were on board with her plan to support workers in recovery, she said it wasn’t exactly easy to implement. At first, some of the manufacturer’s 95 employees were wary. She heard things like: “What do you mean you're gonna have somebody in here who’s got a heroin problem, or a cocaine problem, or an alcohol problem, or whatever?” she said.

It helped to explain that substance use disorder is a medical condition. “This is no different than somebody finding out that they, you know, have diabetes that they never knew about and they're struggling with getting it under control,” she said. “I never, ever want to see somebody treated with disrespect because they have a medical condition when they're trying to get a job.”

Bushell also sought support and tips from other like-minded local employers. And she connected with Recovery Vermont, the state’s recovery resources network, which is developing a toolkit to help employers implement recovery-friendly policies in their workplaces.

Recovery Vermont offers recovery coach training and certification; Bushell took it. So did another longtime employee who’s in recovery himself. Edlund also has a resource coordinator on-site to help employees access things like housing, social services, addiction treatment and financial planning.

Bushell worked information about recovery support into the employee orientation. She’s up front about her experiences when onboarding new employees, talking with them at the round table in her office. “I share my story that, you know, I support people in recovery. It's a passion of mine. I'm here to help,” she said. “Most of them will tell me their story.”

All these efforts have helped change the climate at Edlund. “My core staff has met some really awesome people,” she said. That’s helped assuage their initial concerns.

‘You Just See Their Shoulders Relax’

Tammy Bushell - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Tammy Bushell

Lisa Lord, director of workforce development at Recovery Vermont, would love to see more businesses commit to becoming recovery-friendly workplaces. Cultivating them is part of her job, and it's something Recovery Vermont wants to focus on in the coming year.

Not only does having a steady paycheck help people with substance use disorder maintain their recovery, but embracing a recovery-friendly approach could also potentially help many Vermont businesses access a skilled and dedicated pool of employees.

Lisa Lord, director of workforce development at Recovery Vermont - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Lisa Lord, director of workforce development at Recovery Vermont

Both Bushell and Lord note that addiction affects many, many more people than most of us realize. Stigma often keeps people from claiming the connection, but confronting it head-on can help both workers and employers.

Lord offers an example: She works with a local business doing recovery coaching on-site and pops in to their two-day orientation. “They have a section where they introduce me, and I just share that, you know, it's a recovery-friendly workplace,” she said. She tells the group that the employer recognizes that substance use disorder impacts employees and that people shouldn’t have to feel like it has to be a secret. She tells them they can talk to HR or to their supervisor. If they ask for help, someone will help them.

“When I'm doing that, I can see there's always a couple of people in the group where you just see their shoulders relax,” she said. “They realize that they don't have to keep parts of themselves hidden. It really allows them to show up more fully at work.”

Bushell agrees. Her son is in recovery now and works at it every day. “I couldn’t be more proud of how he is doing,” she said. For her part, she’ll continue to champion the concept of recovery-friendly workplaces and remind people that substance use disorder is not something to be ashamed of.

“Everybody's got stuff in their life. And this is no different,” she said. “It really isn't.”

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Interested in learning how to become a recovery-friendly workplace?
Contact Lisa Lord at Recovery Vermont at lisa@recoveryvermont.org.

This article was commissioned and paid for by the Vermont Department of Health.