GE Johnson Construction Co., one of Colorado Springs’ largest employers, is tackling the problem of substance abuse by offering a new coaching program for employees and their loved ones who are fighting addiction.

The company partnered with the Denver nonprofit Face It TOGETHER in December to provide the coaching program, the first company in Colorado to do so.

“I had been through some personal and family experiences, problems with addiction and people trying to figure out, ‘Where do I go for help? I’m embarrassed and I don’t want [anyone] to think bad of my son or my daughter,’ or sometimes, ‘How do I know I don’t have a problem?’” President and CEO Jim Johnson said.

“We had some employees who had lost family members due to addiction, or gotten into a very bad financial position trying to help a child,” he said. “We always heard all of this after the fact. When I was involved in trying to research with one of my family members, I got really overwhelmed.

“When I heard about this counseling piece and the support that it offered, to me it was a very easy benefit to say, yeah, we’re going to do that for our employees.”

Johnson also was impressed that Face It TOGETHER refers participants, which the organization calls members, to vetted providers if they need treatment or other services, and provides continuity of counseling.

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“They are trying to hold those providers accountable,” Johnson said. “There are good and bad providers. The last thing any of us want is for anybody to spend a tremendous amount of money and that provider not live up to what they said they were going to do. They also help them navigate the insurance quagmire that exists.”

Johnson knew the problem of addiction to substances, including alcohol, prescription drugs, marijuana and illegal drugs, was widespread.

At the company’s semi-annual meeting in December, “our director of HR was leading a conversation and asked, ‘How many people in this room have been affected personally or a family member affected by addiction?’” Johnson said. “Over 20 percent raised their hands.

“The number everybody gravitates to is 10 percent. GE Johnson is a great company, but to believe we’re immune — I’m not that foolish. I’m convinced the problem exists.”

The FIT model

Face It TOGETHER was founded 10 years ago in Sioux Falls, Idaho. Its founder, Kevin Kirby, developed the organization’s counseling model after his own battle with addiction.

The organization now has locations in North and South Dakota and Minnesota and opened a Denver branch in September 2018.

“We are here thanks to the efforts of the Daniels Fund,” said FIT’s President Jane Ingalls. “They were drawn to our outcomes and the fact that we measure outcomes in terms of our members’ wellness.”

FIT views addiction as a disease that must be managed like diabetes or other chronic conditions.

“We know that one of the challenges of addiction care is that it’s often provided as if it’s a short-term health crisis, in 30 or 60 days,” Ingalls said. “We know people often need longer than that to change behaviors.”

Members who come to FIT for help are matched with a coach with a similar profile.

“All of our coaches have either battled addiction or have a close family member who has,” Ingalls said.

Coaching sessions are scheduled once a week, either at FIT’s office in Denver or via an app, video or phone, and coaches offer emotional support and help develop strategies for behavior change and practical skills to manage the disease. They also help address barriers to recovery and provide extra support in the event of a setback.

Coaches also offer support for employees who have a family member struggling with addiction, aiding in establishing healthy boundaries, improving communication, modeling and encouraging change, and providing motivation while strengthening the employee’s own well-being.

While sobriety is the way most programs measure successful outcomes, “sobriety alone doesn’t tell us much about changes in a person’s whole well-being,” FIT’s website states.

“Our focus is on overall wellness — how members engage with family, work and community,” Ingalls said. “We track all of those things to come up with a more holistic view of wellness.”

The organization has developed what it calls a Recovery Capital Index, which tracks symptoms and issues covering emotional, mental and physical health. The index, which is scored on a scale of 1 to 100, is administered at the beginning of coaching and repeated every 30 days.

Members are asked questions such as “Are you more hopeful?” “Is your employment more stable?” and “Are things better at home?” as well as whether they have used drugs or alcohol since the last session.

Return on investment

Employers bear the costs of addiction in terms of increased health care costs, turnover, absenteeism, low productivity and increased risk of injury.

“If we can help in lowering the cost of turnover, then the program will pay for itself,” Ingalls said.

Ingalls points to a calculator developed by the National Safety Council that lets employers figure the cost of substance abuse. The calculator is found at nsc.org/forms/substance-use-employer-calculator.

GE Johnson has signed a three-year commitment to its partnership with FIT. The company pays a quarterly fee; there is no cost to employees.

For Johnson, the ROI goes beyond numbers.

“I’m the one that basically has to evaluate ROI,” Johnson said. “Sometimes I use math; sometimes I say it’s the right thing to do. This falls under the second category.”

Denver-based Encore Electric, which has an office and 60 employees in Colorado Springs, has also inked a partnership with FIT, under the direction of CEO Willis Wiedel.

“They’re pretty unique in the market,” Encore’s Director of Human Resources and Training David Scott said. “We have a traditional employee assistance program, but FIT goes beyond … in the coaching and technology they use.”

Scott said FIT’s fee is “a small percentage” of addiction’s cost of absenteeism.

FIT partnered with Ecotone, a Minneapolis-based firm that provides evidence-based valuations, to conduct a social impact analysis of its program. Ecotone found a $12.40 social return on investment for every dollar spent on coaching of those with addiction, and a $2.58 SROI for every dollar spent on coaching of loved ones.

FIT’s outcomes impressed the Daniels Fund and the employers who have signed up for the program thus far.

Data compiled by FIT showed that after 30 days of peer coaching, members demonstrated an 8.5 percent change from the baseline index score; the longer engagement continued, the more improvement was measured. After 90 days, clients showed a 17 percent positive change in their scores.

The organization surveyed 76 members who met with peer coaches between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2018, about whether they had lost a job or had their employment negatively impacted by addiction-related issues within the previous 30 days.

The survey found a reduction in negative impact to employment among the 76 members. After 30 days, 72 percent indicated that their employment had not been negatively impacted; after 90 days, 93 percent said so.

Besides GE Johnson and Encore Electric, FIT’s partners in Colorado include IREA and Red Robin. The organization is in talks with numerous other employers and associations.

“I wish more employers would sign on and provide this,” Johnson said. “To me this was one of the easiest benefits we’ve ever added. I don’t believe any employment sector is immune, and companies need to step up and do something about it.”