Tom Coderre ’04 , senior advisor to Gov. Gina Raimondo, has the responsibility of coordinating the administration’s tactics to combat the opioid addiction crisis.
Research shows that 70 percent of people who use illicit drugs in the United States are employed, costing American companies $81 billion every year, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Such a dilemma has sparked the need to encourage employers, employees and communities to collaborate to eliminate barriers for those impacted by addiction, said Tom Coderre ’04, senior advisor to R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo and coordinator of the state’s response to the opioid crisis.
Coderre, who graduated from Rhode Island College with a political science degree, previously served as chief of staff and senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) from 2014 to 2017. He led the SAMHSA team that produced “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health.”
“Many people think someone with an addiction is homeless, walking down the street with a tattered bag in his or her hands,” Coderre said. “In reality, many people facing challenges with substances are in the workforce and have mild or moderate disorders. We’re trying to address and remove the negative stigma that comes with it.”
Since September 2018, Coderre has been overseeing the work of the Rhode Island Recovery Friendly Workplace Committee, co-chaired by Rhode Island College President Frank D. Sánchez and Electric Boat Medical Director Susan Andrews. The goal of the committee is to foster a workplace culture where employers can be part of the solution.
A best practices guide, produced by the committee, is forthcoming this summer and will map out how employers can recognize the signs of substance use and addiction and encourage employees into treatment. It will also coach other employees on how to help coworkers struggling with addiction. Additionally, the pamphlet will contain resources, training strategies and detail how companies can attain “recovery-friendly” status by the state.
Coderre looks over a draft proposal in his Statehouse office.
“Our ultimate goal is to have on-the-ground organizers meet with companies to help them through this process,” Coderre said. “These organizers will spell out the implications of support programs for human resources departments and for the companies as a whole. They will also provide the training and technical assistance to get the workplace recovery process up and running.”
Such state-driven efforts to intervene in addiction should be welcomed, said Rhode Island College Associate Professor of Psychology Jayson Spas. “Addiction manifests itself in the workforce with decreased productivity and increased sick time,” said Spas, who teaches in the college’s Chemical Dependency and Addiction Studies program.
“Workplace programs help to destigmatize addiction and promote acceptance, awareness and understanding of the insidious nature of substance abuse and how it affects individuals, families and communities,” Spas said.
However, the success of this recovery-friendly initiative will ultimately depend on how much companies or institutions want to invest in the effort, noted Spas.
“As a place of employment, you want to create a culture and atmosphere that’s embracing but also respects an individual’s own comfort level,” Spas said. “The individual doesn’t want to feel coerced or pressured to have to disclose private matters for a variety of reasons. Anecdotally, there are many people for whom I don’t think their place of employment knows they’re in recovery.’’
Coderre recalled one approach that Raimondo suggested employers consider. “The governor said, ‘If employees have a cold or flu, they’d tell their employer they need a sick day. But how many of us would be willing to call the employer and say that they needed a mental health day today?’ We have to start breaking down barriers about addiction in workplaces so that it is taken as seriously as other issues.”