Managing Work When You’re in Recovery

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You can’t just walk away from your job if you need treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. You know you need help, but you also need that regular paycheck to pay the bills.

It’s a quandary many people deal with.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 55% of people with substance use disorders have full-time jobs. However, many avoid treatment because they fear losing their job.

The fear of losing a good job is understandable, but postponing rehab is more harmful in the long run. The longer an addiction remains untreated, the higher the risk that you won’t be at your best for your job, for your family, or for anything.

People with severe addictions often lose their jobs because they:

  • Have problems with coworkers
  • Let responsibilities slide
  • Are frequently late or absent
  • Can’t focus
  • Lack follow through
  • Become moody, and let moods affect the quality of their work
  • Show how up to work drunk or high

If you need treatment, it’s best to be proactive. Meet the situation head-on. Handle it before problems at work are beyond repair. Take care of things before you lose not only your paycheck, but also your health insurance and other important benefits.

The Right Choice in the Long Run

It may be difficult to see the bright side, here’s the good news: people who enter treatment are actually more likely to keep their jobs than those who don’t. In fact, you may even get a better job because your energy and attention are no longer focused on getting or using drugs or alcohol – they’re focused on doing a good job.

Once you get sober, good things start to happen. Your thinking becomes clearer, you become more confident, and you start to regain your sense of self – a new and improved one. You become more focused and your productivity increases.

That’s something both you and your employers want: the best version of you.

Talk to Your Employer: Don’t Wait

Your employer can fire you if your addiction affects your work performance. That’s why it’s important to be up front and honest with your employers about your addiction – if it starts to cause problems – before they decide to take disciplinary action.

If you plan to enter inpatient or residential treatment, tell your employers how long you expect to be away from work. The same goes if plan to enter outpatient, intensive outpatient, or partial hospitalization treatment. Your employer needs to know if you require certain accommodations such as changes in your work schedule, extra time during lunch to go to meetings, or administrative support navigating your employee health plan.

Once you’ve informed your employer, the law prevents you from being fired because you plan to enter treatment. It also protects you from penalties for addiction-related problems you caused or errors you made in the past.

It’s also important to note that your employer is legally required to maintain confidentiality regarding your medical issues, including treatment for addiction. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your boss or supervisor, speak to your human resources representative.

The Americans With Disabilities Act: Know Your Rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, prohibits employers from any type of discrimination based on a disability, including addiction.

As noted above, you can’t be fired for reasons associated with treatment for addiction once you decide to enter treatment. Your employer is also required to make reasonable accommodations, which may include a leave of absence for inpatient treatment, or adjustments to your schedule for outpatient treatment.

However, there are certain stipulations in place. For instance, your employer has the right to terminate you if treatment is unsuccessful and your addiction interferes with the function of your job, or if you resume the use of drugs or alcohol. In other words, you must be in recovery and no longer using the addictive substance.

If you feel you are the victim of discrimination due to your addiction, you have the right to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Commission. You can file a complaint by mail, or at ADA’s website here.

The Family Medical Leave Act

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), passed in 1993 and enforced by the Department of Labor, is a labor law that allows eligible employees of covered employers to take leave for specified family and medical reasons.

Several situations qualify an individual for leave, including addiction, which is considered “a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.”

Employers bound by FMLA are those with at least 50 employees who work at least 20 weeks per year. This includes employers in the private sector, local or state agencies, and public or private elementary or secondary schools.

The law stipulates that if you qualify for FMLA, you may receive up to 12 weeks leave as long as you have worked for the employer 12 months or more and accrued at least 1,250 working hours during that time.

By law, leave is unpaid unless your employer offers paid leave or disability insurance. You can, however, apply for disability payments for the time you are out of work.

Employee Assistance Programs

Many employers, both large and small, offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). These programs can help pay for inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment. EAP funds can also assist employees with relationship problems, family issues, financial concerns, mental health issues, work-life stresses, or other concerns.

Most employees don’t take advantage of the addiction services provided by EAPs. That’s probably because they’re afraid of losing their job if word of their addiction gets out.

Unfortunately, stereotypes about addiction are alive and well. However, EAP services are completely confidential and there are laws in place to ensure your privacy is protected. Most importantly, your employer can’t share your records without your consent.

Talk to your employer or your company’s HR person if you need more information about your company’s EAP program, and to see if you’re eligible.

You can also refer to the company website, or to your employee handbook. EAP counseling and referrals are free of charge. If you choose to enter treatment, you may also receive help for transitioning back to work.

Keep in mind that your employer may have certain rules and conditions in place. For instance, employers can require you to sign a return-to-work agreement. They may also require you to undergo regular drug or alcohol screenings upon return. In many cases, employers have the right to terminate you if you fail to hold up your end of the agreement.

A Note About Health Insurance

If your employer offers insurance, talk to your HR person to determine exactly what your plan covers. The Affordable Care Act requires all marketplace plans to offer a certain amount of mental health and substance abuse treatment when deemed medically necessary.

Before you Enter Treatment

If you work full time, have an alcohol or substance use disorder, and decide you need to get professional help, consult this list to help you manage work, treatment, and recovery all at the same time.

Five Tips to Manage Work During Recovery

  1. If you feel you absolutely can’t take time away from your job, outpatient treatment may be a viable option. Outpatient treatment generally comes in two forms: intensive outpatient and regular outpatient. Intensive outpatient treatment generally requires two or three visits per week, while regular outpatient treatment generally consists of one visit per week.
  2. Regular attendance at 12-Step meetings or other group support can also be valuable, especially when used in conjunction with inpatient treatment.
  3. If you decide to attend 12-step meetings, it’s important to find a sponsor, or at least one person to exchange phone numbers with. Having someone to call when you feel like you may relapse can make all the difference.
  4. If you’re entering residential treatment, let your coworkers know you’ll be away for a period of time. You don’t have to explain why; this is completely up to you and you have every right to keep your treatment private. However, you may find that your coworkers understand and respect your decision to seek help. They may become allies and/or advocates when you finish treatment, and you never know: you may just learn you work alongside more than one person who’s been in treatment, themselves.
  5. Tie up loose ends as much as possible before you leave. Don’t leave unfinished work for your coworkers to take care of unless you clear it with them first.

Getting Treatment While Working is Possible

Entering treatment as an adult with a full set of real-life responsibilities is a daunting prospect. One thing most people don’t know – and one thing we want you to take away from this article – is that once you inform your employers you have a substance use disorder, they can’t fire you because of it. Nor can they fire you for taking time off to go to treatment. That’s the biggest fear most people have, and ironically, it’s the least relevant one, because – as long as you’re up front about it – you are completely, one hundred percent protected by the law.

The point is this: if you work full time and know you need treatment, you can, and should, do it – and the sooner you do it, the better.