The Epidemic Within the Pandemic: A Time to Act on Addiction

Dec 10, 2020

Guest Blog by Stephen Schiavo, Senior Vice President, Alkermes

Most of us have probably had more than a few challenging moments during these last eight months of quarantine adjusting to a “new normal” – whatever that may mean to our work, family, and social lives. But for those who are struggling with mental health issues and substance use disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic, this period has been more than just challenging – it has been paralyzing at times. And that’s one reason why all of us – including employers – should act now to support people living with these conditions.

We cannot forget that long before this pandemic, an epidemic of opioid use has afflicted Massachusetts and spared no community. Our challenge now, as a global company with more than two thousand employees, in the face of unprecedented isolation, uncertainty, and separation from traditional care networks, is making sure that our colleagues in need know that they have support and access to mental health and addiction treatment services through their employer.

Certainly, none of this has been made easier by the economic downturn which has continued to deepen as businesses wrestle with how to fully reopen, and layoffs and indefinite furloughs result in more and more people out of work. For those in recovery, the question of whether they will have a job in the weeks and months to come only adds to the stress. The result? Between COVID-19, social distancing and economic uncertainty, the Commonwealth has many, many people suffering in silence, in their own homes, hiding in plain sight. 

Addiction comes in many forms, and often includes mental and behavioral health challenges that are difficult to diagnose and treat. No industry, no community, no family is immune to the ravages of substance use disorder. Whatever our education, career, or socioeconomic background, we are all touched by addiction in some way. 

At Alkermes, we have always made an effort to support our workforce – and during the pandemic, we are taking action to evolve our approach and lead by example. We joined MASS C.A.R.E.S. (Communication and Awareness around Recovery and Employer Support) – an employer initiative developed by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) to help employers become more aware of the signs of opioid use disorder, the challenges faced by those affected, and opportunities for addressing these issues in the workplace.

We’ve worked hard to build a “Culture of Recovery.” We took a close look at our health benefits to make sure they include coverage of an array of inpatient and outpatient mental health and addiction services so that employees and family members can seek the assistance they need, when they need it. And, because we know how critical mental health services are, we eliminated co-pays for mental health office visits.

Our early focus on telehealth services has also made a difference – and reflects our belief that mental healthcare should be as accessible and de-stigmatized as physical healthcare.

We’ve also continued to explore other ways to improve mental health services and benefits to our workforce, such as through mindfulness workshops and weekly guided meditation sessions.

And for those who have found the courage to enter substance use disorder treatment, we have designed our program to allow them to continue to receive a paycheck for a simple reason: the last thing someone struggling with addiction needs is to have to choose between getting well and getting paid.

What works for Alkermes and our workforce may not work for every employer. Especially in this environment in which many smaller and even larger companies are struggling to figure out a way forward for their business, we each have to make our own decisions on how to support our employees in the face of this ongoing epidemic.

But as an employer, we believe it is more crucial than ever before to support our employees and earn the dedication they have shown to us and to their co-workers – and come together as a community, lead by example and help those who need us most.

About the Author:

Stephen Schiavo
Senior Vice President, Alkermes

Mr. Schiavo is a senior vice president and leads the Human Resources function at Alkermes, a biopharmaceutical company developing innovative medicines in the fields of neuroscience, specifically treatments for serious mental illness and addiction, and oncology, with its U.S. headquarters in Waltham, MA.

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