By all measures, Shay Houser is a highly-successful entrepreneur. Over two decades, he has co-founded and led four technology companies, raised $275 million in funding, led an IPO, and closed over 20 acquisitions.
He appeared on the Inc. 5000 list three years in a row, worked at a venture capital firm, and saw two of his companies acquired.
Houser is also a recovering addict and alcoholic.
“For decades I was a functional alcoholic,” he tells Hypepotamus. “I’ve fought addiction my entire career.”
In fact, he left his last company during one of his relapses, spiraling out of control until he got into treatment and began the long process of recovery.
Houser started volunteering with addiction assistance and advocacy organizations in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, and began to realize that he wasn’t an isolated or even unusual case. High-performing businessmen and women all over were struggling with outsized rates of substance abuse.
This is a documented phenomenon: a higher level of workplace stress leads to higher rates of unhealthy mental health behaviors like substance abuse. Roughly 9 percent of those in management positions reportedly have a problem with alcohol, for example.
Ordinary employees feel it as well, especially as technology blurs lines between work and home, and work hours get longer. An American Addiction Centers resource holds that problematic drinking rates rise with number of hours over the standard 40 that employees spend working.
Sometimes, unhealthy behaviors are even unintentionally encouraged by company culture. A Wall Street Journal article said that “the keg is becoming the new watercooler,” at young companies.
Of course, these issues cause a financial hit to the company itself, stemming from missed days, unproductive work time, and retention issues.
“It’s becoming even more prevalent now, because a lot of these situations are also intertwined with #MeToo movement situations,” Houser says. “It’s pushing it all to the surface and people are beginning to realize this is a healthcare issue.”
And yet, as Houser dug into the research, he was dismayed to find that most employers had no way to provide their employees with mental health resources.
Houser wanted to use his professional expertise in tech-enabled service businesses, as well as his personal experience with addiction, to build a solution. But he needed a team, and knew they needed subject-matter expertise and empathy for this sensitive subject.
Healthcare and non-profit veteran Rich Jones is the CEO of FAVOR (Faces and Voices of Recovery) Greenville, an organization that has assisted thousands with addiction recovery. Jones is a Licensed Clinical Substance Use Disorder Specialist, a DOT Substance Abuse Professional, and a Certified Trauma Therapist.
As the co-chair of the capital campaign for FAVOR Greenville, Elizabeth McKissick helped raise the funding to form the organization. Through her own volunteer work, she has helped hundreds of mothers and women in South Carolina work through substance abuse issues.
Both Jones and McKissick were Houser’s personal friends, but they had one other thing in common: both are also recovering addicts.
The team developed the idea for youturn, an educational content platform geared specifically toward employers. Houser likens the platform to Netflix for substance abuse.
It has several components: the first, a library of episodic videos that show real stories of addiction so employees can learn to recognize, relate to, and get help for addiction. These can be accessed by both the employee and their family members.
“The idea is that when mom finds the bag of pot in the 16-year-old’s car, instead of freaking out, she looks at the content, takes a breath and says, ‘okay, I’m not alone. What do I need to understand?’” explains Houser.
There’s also a specialized training content section for managers to learn how to deal with suspected addiction on their team.
The training includes how to recognize signs of abuse, recovery first aid training, and how to talk to employees. Once managers watch the videos, they are tested and receive a certificate.
“This begins to build a layer of liability protection for the company, provide risk reduction, and we think it also addresses potential growth in healthcare costs years down the line,” Houser says.
The platform even has specialized content from physicians about medication treatment for addiction.
Houser explains that how employees access the platform is very important to the team. For anonymity and job security, users log into youturn from their personal email account only. Employers do not see who has accessed content or what is being watched, and the platform remains separate from the company’s internal HR system.
Youturn is paid for by the employer on a per-employee basis.
Houser has built an Advisory Board of doctors, Ph.D’s, healthcare and technology executives, many of whom have also experienced addiction. He has raised private funding from individuals to fund the business thus far.
Youturn is currently in talks with companies across a range of sizes and industries, as Houser believes this problem is universal across the corporate world.
He says he does feel encouraged that executives seem to increasingly be recognizing the issue.
“We’re basically where sexual harassment training was 40 years ago.” Houser says. “That’s understood now, people see the value. We will get there.”