January 10, 2018 – Fighting addiction in the workplace is by no means a new problem. For decades, employers have battled substance abuse issues among their employees and struggled to have them rehabilitated and returned healthy to work.
Alcohol was the first recorded substance that affected employee performance in the workplace. Following alcohol, other impairment and addictive drugs appeared. Opiates, cannabis and today’s wide assortment of habit-forming prescription pills like painkillers, stimulants and sedatives now plague rising numbers or workers and employers.
Addiction in the workplace can lead to lowered productivity and revenue loss. It’s not just the loss of income from employee addiction that severely affects one company’s profits. The cost of rehabilitating and reintegrating addicted workers is a massive loss to the entire country’s economy.
Early on, business owners and their supervisors learned to watch for symptoms of addiction in workers. Employers developed treatment and prevention programs, but were limited by their understanding of the complex workings of addiction as a disease.
These well-meaning programs and their policies generally dealt with controlling the problem of addiction. They focused on curbing absenteeism and unacceptable performance, including the inevitable workplace accidents caused by impaired workers. That included workers directly under the influence of an addictive substance and those suffering from the lingering effects of recent intoxication.
While each approach was different, what they had in common was an understanding and insightful employer working with a ready and receptive employee to address the addiction issue, an attempt to cure it and then hopefully return the addicted worker back to their job without any more disruption than is necessary.
These early attempts by forward-thinking employers led to occupational addiction programs, particularly for alcoholism, and were the forerunners of today’s sophisticated Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs. Many have been highly successful in early intervention where a worker is sliding down the slope of addiction, by quickly enrolling them in a professional addiction treatment program.
Today, there’s much more awareness and understanding about how to handle addiction in the workplace — and nowhere is this more evident than in the understanding that addiction is a disease. Most companies have a comprehensive policy on how to deal with workplace addiction, and they genuinely treat it like the chronic, disabling condition that it is.
Government legislation also mandates that addiction is seen as a disability that needs treatment, not punishment, and all parties must strive to deal with the cause of the problem, rather than just the symptoms and the consequences.
Most employment-based addiction intervention and recovery programs have a cooperative approach between the employer, the employee and other support factors like trade associations or internal support groups. Success rates are high and getting better as proven methods are integrated. Working together, addiction rehabilitation is effective, long-lasting and often permanent. But there’s still one weak link in most rehabilitation chains.
That’s the post-treatment of the worker and returning to work after addiction rehab. The initial battle in controlling the addictive behavior may be won, but the war against relapse still hasn’t been conceded. Long-lasting addiction peace in the workplace has a much better chance if a proper post-treatment and return to work program is launched.
Let’s look at what you should expect on the road toward re-entering the workforce after undergoing addiction treatment.
Return to Work Program
If you’re returning to work after addiction rehab, it’s natural to feel a bit anxious. To start with, you’re probably concerned about whether you can even get your job back after rehab, and then you’re going to be worried about keeping your job if relapse rears its head.
Fear is the biggest enemy to any worker who’s returning to the workforce after taking an addiction recovery program. As the quote goes, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself” — but that’s no reassurance to someone who suffered a chronic addiction disease, worked hard to recover and now faces the difficult step of reconnecting with their coworkers, their supervisors and their clients.
This can often be months down the road, and circumstances will inevitably have changed in your workplace and the ever-evolving work world around you. It’s like being a stranger in a new environment.
First, if you’re an employee returning to work, you should know about your feelings. Uneasiness is a natural part of rehab, and it’s to be expected. Anxious feelings are easier to deal with when you know what to expect, and can prepare accordingly.
Co-workers cause the most anxiety to employees who return to work after rehab. The obvious question of “Where have you been?” is inevitable and hard to deflect. There are two ways to deal with this.
- The first is to be honest and straightforward about the reason.
- The second is to offer an alternative explanation that’s not entirely accurate. This is a choice you’ll need to make for yourself, and as a worker in recovery, it’s entirely within your right to refuse to discuss it.
Telling the truth might have consequences, and the biggest fear is being judged. Not being truthful also has consequences, and that’s a loss of credibility.
But what you really have to consider is that you’re going to be dealing with four groups of coworkers, and it helps to know who they are in order to put criticism in perspective, as well as to select those who can lend ongoing support. Here’s who they are:
- Group 1 — Those who know about the addiction and the reason for your absence, and are open about it.
- Group 2 — Those who are aware but uncomfortably pretend they don’t know.
- Group 3 — Those who have no idea and honestly don’t care.
- Group 4 — Those who know what the worker has been through because they are recovering addicts themselves, or they’re close to someone who is.
All workers who are re-entering the workforce after addiction treatment need to seek out and ally with Group 4. This is going to be the workplace support group, whether it’s a formal process or not. Group 4 will be your lifeline to understanding and reassuring yourself that anxiety is a natural part of returning to work. They’ll also be the front line in watching for signs of relapse, which are also part of the natural recovery process.
A return to work program must include awareness of what stability brings to maintaining sobriety. Easing back into the job is vital, and often done day-by-day. Workers who feel they must jump back right where they left off are going to be overwhelmed. Dealing with the same stresses, conflicts, deadlines and job responsibilities that existed before the treatment leave or, worse yet, those that heavily contributed to the breakdown, must not be tackled at once. Anxiety from unreasonable or unexplained expectations is a dangerous force in triggering a relapse.
Ways To Make Your Transition Back To Work Easier
A recovering employee who’s returning to work will be far more successful if a clear aftercare plan is in place. Here are some points that will make that transition smoother and help ease your stress:
1. Decide in Advance What to Tell Coworkers
This may be the biggest stressor for anyone facing a return to work after addiction treatment. Confidentiality is paramount in any addiction recovery program, but ultimately the decision about “coming clean” is owned by the affected individual and no one else.
Returning to the workforce will be far easier when you confidently know how you’re going to respond to your peers, superiors and subordinates when faced with that inevitable question: “Where have you been?”
2 Have Clear Communication With the Employer
This should be an ongoing process right from when the addiction problem was identified, the treatment was arranged and the return to work plan was developed. Clear expectations of your duties, hours and gradual integration into the workplace should be spelled out in a written plan. This includes any time off necessary to attend post-treatment appointments, counselling sessions and/or support group meetings.
Open communication with your employer is vital to keeping your job after rehab.
3. Have a Professional Aftercare Plan to Follow Through
Uncertainty undermines all good plans. An aftercare plan must be professionally developed as part of the addiction treatment program and extends through to the employer to ensure the return to work phase is continual and monitored.
Employee Assistance Programs are an essential part of aftercare. A returning worker who has a clear understanding of what they’re facing, how they need to respond and who’s there to assist them has far greater odds of a speedy and full recovery.
4. Attend Prescribed Counseling Sessions
No one returning to work after rehab should be without prescribed counseling sessions. This may involve a single, appointed counselor who intimately knows the worker’s history and personal issues. It may also include other support staff from the employee assistance program, and it might include volunteers from an addiction support group made of peers who have experience what you’re transitioning through.
5. Connecting With a Workplace Support Team
Most larger workplaces have in-house workplace support teams composed of other employees who have an interest in helping someone return to work after rehab for addiction. They may be peers who have experienced similar issues, or concerned superiors who go out of their way to ensure a recovering addict has the best re-integration support possible.
6. Develop a Routine
Being back in the workforce is a great help on its own to recovering addicts. Structured and stable routines are stress relievers and a boost to self-esteem. Having the purpose and responsibility of showing up on time, staying sober, being motivated and held accountable are essential for integrating yourself back into society.
7. Anticipate Relapses
Relapses are a normal part of the addiction recovery program and should not be seen as a failure. Part of addiction treatment is putting the addict back in an environment where temptations exist. The temptation to relapse is to be expected and occurs in many cases. It’s how the relapse is handled that determines if it’s a temporary setback to be overcome or a major downfall in the recovery steps.
Three common relapse triggers are:
- Emotions — Excessive anxiety or depression is usually behind a relapse. Part of the reason most people turned to an addictive substance is to avoid or cover up these destructive feelings. Uncomfortable situations that cause stress and anxiety need careful management and monitoring.
- Happy Occasions — Parties and celebrations are opportunities for an addict to let their hair down. They encourage excuses like, “It’s just one drink, it won’t hurt.” They might even lead to relapse into whatever substance abuse existed previously. A sober second-thought about attending functions where alcohol or drugs are readily available pays off.
- Uncomfortable Social Situations — Undue stress, such as associating with “undesirables” or people from past relationships, can trigger an addictive relapse. Being aware ahead of time of where the event is and who’s going to attend serve as prevention against a stressful event and spiraling into relapse.
8. Beware of Burnout
It’s common for addicts to channel their addiction into their work once they’ve returned to the workplace after seeking treatment. This occurs with an intoxicating substance when avoiding discomfort or pain, and the same relief is often found by overworking. A person returning to the workplace after treatment may find themselves working extra hard in order to “prove themselves,” or simply to occupy their time so they lessen their opportunity to be around situations where substances are available.
9. Control Your Finances
Taking time from work for addiction recovery can take a heavy toll on your financial situation, even if the treatment program is paid for by your employer or is covered by your health insurance policy. Financial counseling should be considered an option to make sure no unnecessary stressors are added by worries about paying the bills.
10. Relationship Management
Including your spouse, partner or dependents in the process is mandatory for a successful return to work program. A person in recovery needs that support away from work as much as they need it at work, especially when re-entering the workforce. Family members should be completely aware of your aftercare plan. Without that knowledge, their effectiveness as a support resource is seriously reduced.
11. Define What’s Normal
The mind of a person who’s returning to work can be easily confused — overwhelmed, actually — and is often not able to sort out what constitutes a “normal” routine and behavior. An open conversation with support people is vital for keeping a “reality check” and alerting when things are headed off-track.
Being back in the workplace can feel abnormal to someone who’s been away for some time — especially after taking an intense treatment program that might have required confinement to an institution.
12. Restoring Self-Esteem
Proper, realistic self-esteem is vital to your recovery and your return to work after rehab for addiction. Loss of self-esteem is an early casualty in the face of substance abuse and is often the root cause. Restoring self-esteem is a time-consuming process. Continual and honest reassurance is the best way to restore self-esteem, and it should be one of the main goals sought by support resources.
Rewards are far greater motivators than punishments, and nothing is more effective than rewarding a person to build back their self-esteem.
Key to the success of a return to work program is having responsibility. This can include having a schedule to keep yourself progressing toward the completion of certain tasks and setting deadlines that need to be met. “Slow but steady” is the prescription for responsibility. Being responsible is a sure way to integrate back into the workplace and reduce your chances of relapse.
Last, but not least, all people re-entering the workforce after addiction treatment need to be accountable for their actions. Just as in the treatment process, there’s no room for excuses or turning a blind eye to unacceptable behavior or actions. Accountability goes hand-in-hand with responsibility.
In review, responsibility in a return to work program includes:
- Telling co-workers
- Employer communication
- Aftercare follow through
- Attending counselling sessions
- Support team connection
- Developing routines
- Anticipating relapse
- Burnout beware
- Controlling finances
- Relationship management
- Defining normal
What Are Your Employer’s Responsibilities?
Returning to work is not a one-way street. Just as an employee has their responsibilities to be accountable for, so does an employer. In fact, employers can be held to an even higher standard, as there are various laws in place to ensure a worker is fairly treated after seeking treatment, and to help set expectations for the mandatory assistance an employer must give the returning worker.
Employees are responsible for the integration and monitoring of a worker who suffered an addiction and was required to take a leave of absence for clinically recognized disease treatment.
Generally, an employer is expected to:
– Develop Policies and Procedures for Returning to Work
This can also be called a “fitness-for-work” program. By law, businesses over a certain size must have clearly written plans for how they intend to ease an employee back into the workforce after being off for addiction treatment. These programs must state a step-by-step process for reintegration, monitoring, retraining and generally assisting a worker to make that difficult transition.
A) Educate Employees on a Return to Work Program
Simply facilitating a return to work program is not sufficient in most jurisdictions. Employers are held accountable for educating workers on what’s available to them in terms of workplace assistance, so they understand that support is available for them. Education may extend to actual information on the causes and symptoms of addiction, as well as what to expect on the road toward recovery and re-entering the workforce.
B) Enact an Employee Assistance Program
EAPs are common in all large organizations and fall under the eye of the Human Resources Department. EAPs are made up of certified outsourced professionals and appointed managers, and often draw on the personal knowledge and assistance of peers and coworkers who have gone through the program, or who have some personal experience in what the reintegrating worker is going through.
C) Facilitate Meeting and Support Services
Regular communication with a person returning to work after addiction treatment is also the responsibility of the employer — not just the employee. A set plan with dates and milestones is expected from the employer. This sets a control over accountability and helps monitor the worker’s progress, and is a safeguard for signs of relapse.
Frequently Asked Questions
Whether you’re returning to work or finding employment after treatment, it’s essential to clarify what responsibilities and accountabilities are expected as a client transitions home and back into society.
For those who are seeking new employment, at Tranquil Shores, our licensed Case Manager works with clients on updating resumes and applying for jobs. This preparation is essential to starting a new career path and embracing a new chapter in life.
We’re committed to the health and well-being of our clients. We also support businesses with substance abuse and mental health policies that are effective, sound and reliable. Contact us today by phone or online to learn more about the addiction support we offer. If you’re suffering from addiction, discover how Tranquil Shores can help you reclaim your life.