If you are struggling with addiction or are in recovery for substance abuse, you are not alone. Addiction is more common than you may think: Sixteen percent of the US population (40 million people) aged 12 and up meet the clinical definition for addiction, according to CASA Columbia. This figure includes people who are addicted to alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription medications.
Despite the fact that this chronic disease affects people of both genders, every race, different age groups, employment sectors, ethnic groups, religious affiliations and more, there’s still a stigma associated with addiction. Many addicts wonder whether it’s okay to share with employers their need for treatment or share that they have undergone a treatment program in the past.
A misconception about people living with substance abuse is that they are not able to hold down a job. A fact book prepared for Peer Assistance Services reveals that close to 75 percent of all illicit drug users aged 18 and over are employed.
The idea of sitting down with your supervisor or someone from HR and explaining that you’re living with substance abuse is likely quite intimidating. You may be wondering any or all of the following:
- Will my health status be treated respectfully?
- Who else will need to be informed about it?
- Will I be fired for admitting to having a substance abuse issue?
- Can I come back to work in my present position after getting treatment?
Before You Approach Your Employer About Addiction
Before you decide to talk to anyone about your addiction and your desire to get help, take a step back and think things through. Make sure you understand your rights and obligations, as well as your employer’s responsibilities, so that you can keep your job through addiction.
Holding down a job and an active addiction is difficult. You may feel overwhelmed as you try to find information about treatment programs, understand the applicable laws, and search for information about income replacement during time away from work through short and long-term disability coverage.
Start a file to keep relevant documents and contact information in one place. If possible, enlist the help of a friend or relative to help you stay organized.
Take ownership for your work performance. Even if you are not actively using your substance of choice on the job, a substance abuse issue will likely affect your overall performance. Perhaps you arrive late or have a higher-than-usual absenteeism rate. Or perhaps you’re not fully engaged on the job because you’re focused on using. Your supervisor and coworkers may have noticed issues like:
- Difficulty staying alert
- Irritability or mood swings
- Less concern about personal appearance
- Lower productivity
- Quarrels with others
- Taking longer or more frequent breaks than allowed
The effects of addiction can send the impression that you’re negligent or careless, when in reality you’re suffering from a disease. Rather than waiting for the matter to come to a head in a disciplinary interview, consider approaching your employer directly. However, before you take that step you should make sure you understand the legislation that protects workers who suffer with substance abuse.
Can I Lose My Job If I Go to Rehab?
To appropriately answer this question, it’s wise to understand the laws that protect workers suffering from addiction.
Americans With Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from discrimination on the basis of disability when the employee is qualified to do the position with reasonable accommodations. The act applies to you if you work for an employer with more than 15 employees.
If you have a chemical dependency, it is considered to be a disability. However, the law makes an exception if you use illegal drugs: you will not be granted its protection in that instance. A dependence on alcohol would be covered because it’s a legal substance.
Your employer has the right to create a policy that prohibits all employees from using alcohol and illegal drugs in the workplace. Employers can also create a policy that says employees cannot be under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs while at work.
Under the provisions of the ADA, your employer maintains the right to expect you to perform your job duties competently — and to the same standard — as a fellow employee who does not have a chemical dependency. If you are unable to perform your job duties to this level, your employer has grounds to dismiss you.
What does this mean to you? If you’re an alcoholic and are performing well at work, your employer cannot fire you because you have a substance abuse issue, as long as you don’t present a danger to others in the workplace. Your chemical dependence on alcohol is a disability.
In a situation where your employer fired you, the law only considers whether or not you were an active substance abuser at the time your employment was terminated. Your past behaviors involving alcohol and drug use is of no consequence. If you decide to seek treatment on your own before being fired, you cannot be terminated for your previous errors or conduct on while on the job.
Family and Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to grant employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year. Health benefits must be continued during this time as if the employee were working instead of away on leave. Upon their return to work, employees are entitled to return to either the same or an equivalent position.
FMLA applies to federal, state and local employers and includes schools. This act also applies to private sector employers with 50 or more employees.
To qualify for FMLA leave, you need to meet the following criteria:
- Work for an employer covered under the legislation
- Work at an office, warehouse, depot, store, building or other where your employer has 50 or more employees within a distance of 75 miles
- Have worked for your employer for 12 months or more
- Have worked 1,250 hours during the 12 months before starting your leave
The act does allow employees to take leave to seek treatment for substance abuse. Certain conditions must be met in order to qualify for leave under this legislation:
- You must be seeking help from an inpatient treatment program, which would require you to stay overnight.
- The issue must be serious enough to render you incapable of working or performing your regular daily activities.
- A referral from a health care provider is required before you can qualify for FMLA leave.
Your employer is required to post general information about requesting FMLA leave and provide it in employee handbooks. If your company has a human resources department, it should have copies of the required notice.
Let’s examine a few common questions associated with FMLA:
- Can you be fired for taking FMLA leave? No. Your employer cannot take action against you because you decided to go for treatment and exercised your rights under FMLA.
- Does that mean your employer cannot fire you for substance abuse? No. If your employer has a clear policy in place — and it has been shared with all employees — that states employees may be terminated for substance abuse, your employer may terminate your employment, even if you are on FMLA leave. Employers who rely on such policies must exercise it in a non-discriminatory manner.
How to Keep Your Job Through Addiction
Engaging in a conversation with your employer about your substance abuse is not one of the most comfortable talks you will experience during your lifetime, but it may be one of the most important.
Follow the company policy when it’s time to discuss this important matter. Your employer may have a policy about the line of communication for this type of issue. You may be directed to speak with your immediate supervisor, your department manager, or someone in human resources.
If there is no policy intact for this type of situation, arrange a meeting with your immediate supervisor when you will not be disturbed. He or she is the person you are working with daily and is familiar with your work.
How to Have a Professional Conversation About Your Addiction
Here are a few tips for speaking with your supervisor about your addiction:
- Keep it simple. You don’t have to go into great detail about your situation. Simply explain that you have a substance abuse issue that requires treatment. Make a point of visiting your primary care physician before the meeting, so you can share a written diagnosis and possibly a recommendation for treatment with your supervisor.
- Ask for resources for help. Keep the focus on the future and the fact that you want to get treatment. Ask whether there are any resources the employer can offer you to help. Your supervisor may suggest that you approach the human resources department. At this point, speak with an individual in the department who can help you.
- Find out if your company will pay for treatment. Your health benefits coverage through work may pay for some or all of your drug or alcohol treatment. Now is the time to contact the insurance provider to find out whether you have coverage. If so, find out exactly how much the insurance company will pay toward the cost of your treatment.
- Keep detailed records of all conversations. After each meeting with someone at work regarding your substance abuse, record the date of the conversation, who was present and what decisions were made. Consider sending a quick email to everyone involved in an important conversation to confirm what was discussed. Send a blind copy (bcc) to yourself so you have an offsite copy of the electronic correspondence.
What to Do If Your Employer Terminates Your Employment
You have the right to make a claim against your employer for unfair dismissal. In this case, the matter would be heard by an employment tribunal.
Looking for Work While in Recovery
Recovery is a long-term journey, not a destination, so it’s likely that you will face the issue of whether to tell a prospective employer about your addiction. Unless you have gaps in your resume or the job you are seeking has something to do with alcohol or drugs, you likely won’t be asked any questions about your history of drug or alcohol use.
You can decide whether you want to reveal this information about yourself during a job interview. You will likely be asked some type of question about describing a particularly challenging personal situation and how you dealt with it. Becoming clean and sober after living life as an active addict is no small feat, and the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against people who are in treatment or recovery from substance abuse. You cannot be denied a job on this basis.
How to Explain to My Boss That I Am a Recovering Addict
Once on the job, you may need to explain that you’re a recovering addict. For example, if you need to take time off from work to attend meetings or appointments for follow-up care, your employer must provide reasonable accommodations to allow you to do so. Your employer also has a responsibility to keep any medical information that you share with them confidential.
Also, if you work in an environment that requires employees to spend time socializing often and alcohol is being served during these activities, it is not wise to participate.
When it’s time to tell your boss about your addiction and recovery, consider the following tips:
- Arrange a time when the two of you can sit down together, uninterrupted.
- Try to relax as much as you can. For all you know, you are not the first employee who has approached your boss about a similar issue.
- Keep the conversation focused on where you are right now, as opposed to getting bogged down in the past.
- Rather than presenting your boss with a problem to solve, go into the meeting prepared to suggest possible solutions. If you need to take time off work to attend meetings, walk in with a list of dates and times, as well as a plan for using overtime or vacation entitlement toward missed work hours. You may also want to offer to make up any work time missed for attending meetings.
If you’re concerned about not being able to attend company get-togethers, suggest some sober activities that your coworkers may enjoy instead. Stress to them that you’re not implying that they should end their traditions, but you’re only trying to suggest other activities for fun and variety.
How to Keep Your Job as a Recovering Addict
Whether you’re returning to your current employer or starting a new job as a recovering addict, it’s normal to feel apprehensive as you return to work. Part of your treatment should have dealt with managing stress, and you can use these skills to deal with the day-to-day stresses on the job, as well as your feeling about being in the workforce.
As you go through the substance abuse treatment process, your self-esteem and sense of self-worth will have improved. Getting help for your addiction is the best gift you can give yourself. You are worth it. As you learn to work and recover at the same time, consider the following tips:
- Monitor yourself closely. Through your therapy, you will discover your personal triggers, or cravings that will tempt you to use or drink. Be aware of them and reach out for support from your sponsor, a counselor or someone else you trust when triggers come up. Don’t try to tough it out alone.
- Get enough sleep. If you are well rested, your coping skills will be better, especially while at work. You’ll make fewer errors, be less likely to be involved in a workplace accident and be much easier to get along with.
- Eat a balanced diet. Eating well will give you the nutrients you need to stay awake and alert throughout the day. You’ll be able to function well and put forth your best effort.
- Do something meaningful outside of work. An interest or hobby outside of work will suit you very well as you learn to live a sober life. Large blocks of time with nothing to fill them lead to boredom, which can open the door to thoughts about using or drinking. Find something that you like to do and aim to lead an active lifestyle outside of your work. It will build both character and comradery.
Find Help for Addiction in the Workplace
If you are concerned that your substance abuse may be affecting your job, 12 Keys Rehab can help. Contact us today to find out about the programs we offer to people suffering from addiction.