Workplace MVP LIVE from SHRM 2021: Brandee Izquierdo, SAFE Project
About 10 years ago, Brandee Izquierdo was sitting in a jail cell, struggling with a substance abuse disorder. Brandee joined Workplace MVP host Jamie Gassmann to talk about her long-term recovery, her work at SAFE Project, addiction in the workplace, and how her organization battles the U.S. addiction epidemic. Workplace MVP is underwritten and presented by R3 Continuum and produced by the Minneapolis-St.Paul Studio of Business RadioX®.
This show was originally broadcast live from the 2021 SHRM Annual Conference held at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Brandee Izquierdo, Executive Director, SAFE Project
Brandee Izquierdo’s drive and determination are built on making an impact within behavioral health, promoting long-term recovery, and ensuring communities are educated and have the tools necessary to combat the addiction epidemic. Before leading the SAFE Project team, Brandee worked for Faces & Voices of Recovery as the Director of Advocacy and Outreach. In addition, she served as the Associate Director of Special Populations with Behavioral Health System Baltimore and as the Director of Consumer Affairs for the state of Maryland’s Behavioral Health Administration. In these leadership roles, Brandee has led advocacy efforts to expand access to behavioral health services and recovery support services while providing technical assistance both nationally and internationally, empowering others within the recovery movement. Her ability to build relationships and bridge gaps within behavioral health, community services, and criminal justice have been a catalyst for global peer expansion.
As a subject matter expert with Center for Social Innovation, Policy Research Associates, SAMHSA, and the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC), Brandee has made vast contributions within behavioral health and within the recovery movement around public policy, outreach, and workforce development. Additionally, Brandee has made a significant impact within the judicial system, advocating for access to treatment and recovery and is the principal investigator of Maryland’s integrated-Forensic Peer Recovery Specialist curriculum.
Brandee’s passion for service work and knowledge of recovery support services extends beyond behavioral health. With a master’s degree in Public Administration and a bachelor’s degree in Government and Public Policy, Brandee is currently working on her Doctorate in Public Administration with a specialization in Administration Justice.
SAFE Project was founded in November 2017 by Admiral James and Mary Winnefeld, following the loss of their 19-year old son Jonathan to an accidental opioid overdose. Read more about Jonathan Winnefeld.
The Winnefelds immediately channeled their grief into action, hoping to save more families from the pain of loss. Whether it was seeking treatment, getting answers, or understanding the nature of the disease – they knew there needed to be a different solution to help other families facing the same journey with substance use disorder.
They swiftly built our SAFE Project team of experts who strive for meaningful action through our programs, and lead efforts that are unifying, non-partisan and evidence-based. SAFE seeks meaningful metrics that strengthen our interdependent six lines of operation, and ultimately aim to achieve SAFE Communities, SAFE Campuses, SAFE Workplaces and SAFE Veterans across the nation.
About Workplace MVP
Every day, around the world, organizations of all sizes face disruptive events and situations. Within those workplaces are everyday heroes in human resources, risk management, security, business continuity, and the C-suite. They don’t call themselves heroes though. On the contrary, they simply show up every day, laboring for the well-being of employees in their care, readying the workplace for and planning responses to disruption. This show, Workplace MVP, confers on these heroes the designation they deserve, Workplace MVP (Most Valuable Professionals), and gives them the forum to tell their story. As you hear their experiences, you will learn first-hand, real life approaches to readying the workplace, responses to crisis situations, and overcoming challenges of disruption. Visit our show archive here.
Workplace MVP Host Jamie Gassmann
In addition to serving as the host to the Workplace MVP podcast, Jamie Gassmann is the Director of Marketing at R3 Continuum (R3c). Collectively, she has more than fourteen years of marketing experience. Across her tenure, she has experience working in and with various industries including banking, real estate, retail, crisis management, insurance, business continuity, and more. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mass Communications with special interest in Advertising and Public Relations and a Master of Business Administration from Paseka School of Business, Minnesota State University.
R3 Continuum is a global leader in workplace behavioral health and security solutions. R3c helps ensure the psychological and physical safety of organizations and their people in today’s ever-changing and often unpredictable world. Through their continuum of tailored solutions, including evaluations, crisis response, executive optimization, protective services, and more, they help organizations maintain and cultivate a workplace of wellbeing so that their people can thrive. Learn more about R3c at www.r3c.com.
Intro: [00:00:03] Broadcasting live from the SHRM 2021 Conference at the Las Vegas Convention Center, it’s time for Workplace MVP. Brought to you by R3 Continuum, a global leader in workplace behavioral health, crisis, and security solutions. Now, here’s your host.
Jamie Gassman: [00:00:21] Hey, everyone. Jamie Gassman here, your host of Workplace MVP, broadcasting again from our SHRM 2021 Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. And with me today I have Brandee Izquierdo.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:00:34] Very good.
Jamie Gassman: [00:00:35] Did I say that right? All right. And, she is the executive director for Safe Project. Welcome to the show.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:00:40] Thanks, Jamie. I appreciate it.
Jamie Gassman: [00:00:42] So, tell me a little bit about your career journey and how you kind of came to be as part of Safe Project.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:00:49] Wow. What a journey it’s been. I’d like to first start by saying I am the executive director of Safe Project. However, I’m also a person in long-term recovery. So, my journey has been, needless to say, it’s been very complex and I think right now, especially with this radio station and the behavioral health component of things, the conversation is extremely timely.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:01:12] I will tell you from my own personal journey and my own personal perspective, I work in the behavioral health field now, but that is not the trajectory of my career or where I thought it was going to be. During my active addiction stages or days, for example, I worked in the corporate world and, you know, what a timely conversation to have because I found myself, you know, really faced with a lot of challenges in terms of mental health and substance use. And quite often in the workplace environment, we don’t have those conversations as candidly as we need to.
Jamie Gassman: [00:01:46] Yeah. Absolutely. So, from your perspective, those conversations, you know, and we can probably get into that. But, like, how does an employer open up those environments? So, from somebody who’s actually gone through that, what would you’ve wanted at that time from your employer?
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:02:02] Yeah. I think safety, safety first, a safe space to actually have those conversations. I think quite often, especially in the world of human resources, there’s a lot of fear around mental health conversation, substance use conversation. We’re afraid of legal issues, maybe overstepping our bounds. If I would have had some of those conversations early in my career when I was in the corporate world, I may have recognized that I had a problem.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:02:33] You know, we talk about employee retention. We talk about job performance. We talk about all of that from a business standpoint. But we don’t talk about the why. Why are organizations having a hard time retaining employees? Why are organizations having a difficult time, you know, keeping employees or making sure their own time or their performances is up to par? And a lot of times, if you start to ask that why and create that safe space in a workplace environment, you’re more likely for individuals to come out and say, “Hey, I need help.”
Jamie Gassman: [00:03:10] Yeah. You got to make it comfortable for them to be able to – that they’re not going to be penalized or treated differently, right. Because when you talk a lot about stigma with mental health in the workplace, you know, from your perspective, was that some of what held you back, maybe from talking about it was just that fear as an individual?
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:03:28] Absolutely. I mean, even if you take a look at my family dynamic, for example, you know, there was a lot of substance use in my earlier years and my youth years and I didn’t want to be one of those people. And, it wasn’t until, you know, the disease of addiction is very cunning and baffling.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:03:45] So, we don’t know what’s going to hit us. And, once it does, you’re in those grips and then you become those people and you perpetuate the stigma and the shame, both internally and externally. So, you’re not as free or feel as free or liberated to actually talk about that.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:04:02] And, I think from an employer standpoint also, you know, quite often we don’t think it’s our problem. You always hear, especially with the addiction epidemic that’s going on now, we’re losing 93 American – 93,000 Americans, over 250 individuals a day, and we deem it as a public health crisis. But it’s more than that. It is definitely more than that. And, I think corporations and businesses need to invest in their people and in their communities, and this is one way to do it.
Jamie Gassman: [00:04:30] Yeah. Well, [inaudible] a corporate or business level, you know, really, that can be sometimes the first places that you see that. I mean, you hear it with, like, schools and children that’s their outlet and that’s usually where people can see that somebody needs help. You know, if an employer is more open to seeing some of that or has education around the signs, they might be able to help them in being able to give an extension to their employee of help and support that maybe they aren’t able to get that outside of the workplace.
Jamie Gassman: [00:04:59] Absolutely. I mean, we look at America and our work habits. You know, for me, for Safe Project, I really try to build a culture of safe space or a judgment-free zone. We’re with individuals in our workplace for more than eight hours a day. If we say that we typically work 40 hours, we’re probably lying. We’re probably working more than that. So, we’re around other individuals in terms of colleagues, professionals, vendors, you know, just to name a few. So, we really need to understand the signs and symptoms of addiction and invest in our employees rather than just doing away with them because, you know, perhaps that’s a liability. We talk a lot of stuff as far as, “Oh, I care about my employees.” But do you really care about your employees? And if you do, start talking the talk and walking the walk.
Jamie Gassman: [00:05:51] Absolutely. So, Safe Project, tell me a little bit about your nonprofit and the work that you do.
Jamie Gassman: [00:05:55] Sure. So, again, as I mentioned, Safe Project was founded by Admiral Winnefeld and his wife, Sandy, who lost their son to an accidental overdose in 2017, actually on a college campus. So, their heart is in the collegiate space, but more importantly the community space as well.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:06:13] So, we work with different stakeholders whether it be college campuses, communities, safe workplaces, and safe veterans. So, in working with those different stakeholders, we know that we need to create collaborative partnerships to ensure that we are providing the best resources, education, and knowledge around substance use and mental health challenges that we possibly can throughout the nation.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:06:38] And that’s what we do. We meet communities and our stakeholders where they are and start to move them in the right direction. I kind of call it the Monty Hall approach, kind of old school. You know, let’s pick door one, two, or three. Door number one, for example, may be something as simple as let’s provide some preventive measures. We’re here with Detarra, for example, as one of our partners in drug disposal bags, in-home drug disposal bags. Or, we may want to go a little bit deeper and say, hey, how can we start developing these initiatives in these programs in your workplaces, not only to encompass a holistic wellness approach but also tackle, you know, the stigma associated with addiction and mental health.
Jamie Gassman: [00:07:19] Yeah. And I’ve heard that from some statistics that, you know, with people being home over this last year, substance abuse, addictions are on the rise because they’re doing it at home and there’s nobody to be able to, kind of, catch some of that stuff. Has your work increased, or what kinds of things have you guys put into place in kind of response to that?
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:07:43] Absolutely. It has increased. We are really taking off. We launched our Safe Workplaces initiative not too long ago, probably about six months ago. It’s been in development for a little bit over a year. But when COVID hit, what we’ve realized is that we need to start communicating with individuals because you can’t compartmentalize. It’s not your daily routine where you go to work, you work in an environment, and then you come home. You can really, you know, move back and forth in the substance use arena as far as your use is concerned and hide it very well.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:08:17] But there are also a lot of different aspects of mental health. You’re dealing with being a mom, perhaps a teacher, trying to keep your kids together, yourself together, and there’s no clear disconnect when it comes to work and your home environment.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:08:34] So, we’re seeing a lot in terms of mental health on the rise – people – but I’m also seeing some good stuff too. I’m seeing telehealth coming into play. I’m seeing individual organizations and businesses, really, saying, “Hey, how do we maintain the health and well-being of our employees?” But it’s pretty interesting. We can lead quite often with the mental health side of things. People are a little more accepting of that. They’re not as accepting of the substance use side. So, I think we need to really shine some light on that and that it is happening and it affects everyone.
Jamie Gassman: [00:09:08] Yeah. So, we’re here at SHRM, obviously an HR-focused work conference. If you were going to give advice to these H.R. leaders that are here at this conference from your own personal perspective, what would you want to leave them with?
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:09:22] I think I’d want to leave them with invest in your employees, not only from a work performance perspective but also from a well-being perspective. Start having those conversations and start to build a culture that creates judgment-free safe zones. You know, again, we’re saying that we can’t retain employees. We need to start investing in them as people. We don’t stop at the door and drop our bags off when we’re talking about our problems or issues or challenges in our home life. So, we need to start recognizing that and really just invest in our people and kind of get back to old school, you know. Care.
Jamie Gassman: [00:10:03] Yeah. Just care. Awesome. And creating that environment of safety.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:10:06] Right.
Jamie Gassman: [00:10:07] Very cool. Well, thank you so much for joining us. If somebody wanted to get in touch with you or get more information about Safe Project and the work that you’re doing, how would they go about doing that?
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:10:16] Sure. They can visit us on our website at www.safeproject.us and I’m all about emailing me directly, which is brandee, B-R-A-N-D-E-E, @safeproject.us.
Jamie Gassman: [00:10:29] Wonderful. Well, thanks again, Brandee, for joining us. Thanks for sharing your story. Thank you for providing an opportunity for H.R. leaders to kind of hear another perspective and also kind of be more aware of ways that they can help support their employees that maybe are dealing with some substance abuse. Thanks for joining us.
Brandee Izquierdo: [00:10:45] Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.