Returning to work after substance abuse treatment has a number of implications.
On one hand, being back on the job may be just the right structure someone in recovery needs to stabilize a new way of life. He or she may appreciate the opportunity to be productive, enjoy aspects of a fulfilling career, take care of financial needs, and establish a routine.
On the other hand, going back to a place of employment might pose some challenges. Certain legal issues regarding job security and expectations may need to be confirmed. Dealing with office gossip could be a hassle. It’s also possible the work environment contributed to addictive behaviors and being in the middle of it all again tests healthy boundaries.
Your Rights Under FMLA
As of 2018, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) has clear guidelines about what employers are required to do for someone seeking, and later completing, treatment.
An employee may leave work for substance abuse treatment under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
In general, public and private schools, all public agencies, and employers with 50 or more workers must abide by FMLA guidelines. This includes providing workers with all group health benefits and 12 weeks unpaid, job-protected leave.
An employer cannot take action against a worker choosing FMLA leave for substance abuse treatment. However, there are certain conditions:
- Employees are eligible for FMLA leave only after consistent employment for at least one year, for a minimum of 1,250 hours of service in the past 12 months.
- If established employer policies, communicated to all employees, clearly state that certain circumstances may dictate the termination of an employee for substance abuse, an employee may not have job protection, whether or not he or she is currently taking FMLA leave.
- FMLA leave is not for absence due to active substance abuse. It is only for work release due to active treatment authorized by and under the direction of a healthcare provider or services referred by a healthcare provider.
Addiction as a Disability
Alcoholism and drug addiction are considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means employees who return to work after rehab are protected from discrimination due to treatment and past use.
However, there are caveats:
- An employer has the right to “discipline, discharge, or deny employment to an individual with alcoholism whose use of the substance adversely affects job performance or conduct to the extent he or she is not qualified.”
- It’s not a violation for an employer to issue drug tests, prohibit the use of illegal drugs or alcohol in the workplace, or place the same expectations of job performance and conduct on someone in recovery as other employees.
When most people complete a rehab program, they’re usually cleared by a healthcare professional to return to work.
Federal and state laws specify that employees aren’t required to explain where they were or why they were gone to managers or co-workers. Legally, the only details anyone outside of representatives from human resources (HR) need to know is how long you’ll be gone and when you’re coming back.
Employers must also comply with health provider recommendations for time off to complete necessary functions as outlined in a treatment plan, such as therapy, doctor’s appointments, and other special requirements for recovery.
The Right-to-Work Agreement
In many circumstances, you should work with the company’s HR department to develop a right-to-work agreement upon your return. This is a recommendation by the DOL. Workforce magazine provides these guidelines, which include:
- You, HR, and the rehab facility should design the agreement together to answer key questions about continuance of care, testing, job position restrictions, and any other rules regarding returning to work.
- The agreement should outline a hierarchy of who needs to know about your treatment and what communication that might entail. Your confidentiality should be protected regardless.
- Depending on the severity of substance abuse, this agreement may be more of a last-chance contract and require legal assistance.
The right-to-work agreement establishes accountability and clear communication.
Seeking Supportive Colleagues and Company Resources
Let’s face it—if you’re away from work for an extended period of time, people are going to ask where you’ve been. Although you’re under no obligation to talk to anyone about your recovery journey, it may be helpful to enlist the caring encouragement of a few trusted colleagues when you go back to work. Turning to these individuals to help you resume the pace of your duties and be available when you feel stressed or overwhelmed can make a big difference in your work/life balance.
These colleagues can also be valuable conduits to potential office gossip, enabling you to take control over rumors and put an end to them. Conversely, if you feel like your recovery story can educate people about the problems of addiction, you may want to speak up about your situation.
Also take advantage of your company’s employee assistance program, known as EAP. Usually part of a benefits package, EAP is another self-care resource to help you manage factors of being in the workforce again and address any triggers—especially if they’re employment-related—before they get out of hand.
How Continuing Care Can Help
When you return to work, make sure to stay connected to your continuing care support system. In addition to the guidance you found helpful in the first few months of recovery, consider attending a Willingway continuing care community group. Located in a variety of cities in the South and Southeast, the primary goal of each meeting is to demonstrate the hope that is readily available through the process of recovery.