There are many “firsts” to look forward to when you complete an inpatient or extensive outpatient rehabilitation program. For a lot of people, the opportunity to return to work is a big accomplishment.
As you approach this sobriety milestone, it may be necessary to create a detailed plan of action regarding a number of factors, including:
- Knowing your employment rights and employer expectations
- Establishing clear boundaries
- Recognizing and handling work-related triggers
- Pacing your workload to minimize stress
- Creating a network of support both in the workplace and outside of it
Regardless of the type of position you once held, you’ll now be approaching it from a completely different perspective. Use what you’ve learned in treatment to make the process easier.
Know Your Rights
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is quite clear about employer obligations for employees completing substance abuse treatment and returning to your job. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) considers drug abuse and alcoholism disabilities. This means you’re protected from discrimination by law due to treatment and past use—but not current use.
Your employer must allow you time off for necessary functions required by your healthcare provider or treatment facility continuing care plan. These may include doctor’s visits, therapy, support meetings, and other vital components of your recovery.
Federal and state laws also outline that you’re under no obligation to tell anyone in the workplace—including your direct management—why you were gone. Your company’s human resources (HR) representative is your liaison to effectively going back to work.
This is all what your employer should do for you. In return, you’re required to uphold employment standards. Make sure to talk with the HR representative so you have a clear understanding of the following expectations.
- Your employer has the right to administer random and/or scheduled drug tests; prohibit alcohol or drugs in the workplace or at work functions; and require the same conduct and job performance of someone in recovery as all other employees.
- In addition, the DOL indicates your employer can “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.”
Finally, the DOL advises companies and returning employees to develop a right-to-work agreement. This is beneficial for all parties involved, as it once again provides clear expectations. In order to return to work, you must be cleared by a healthcare professional. Then, he or she may partner with you and your company’s HR representative to establish guidelines for your return, workplace and job duty requirements, and other factors.
Establish Clear Boundaries
As stated previously, you don’t have to explain your stay in rehab to anyone in the workplace—unless you want to. It’s a professional environment, and your private life doesn’t need to be a part of it.
In order to establish clear boundaries regarding your recovery, you may find it necessary to determine what’s most important:
- Telling no one and letting everyone think whatever they like.
- Sharing your addiction story with a select group of co-workers and management.
- Being open about your treatment journey to help other people understand and reduce myths and stigmas involving addiction.
The choice is yours. Work with your recovery team to determine the best course of action.
Deal with Triggers
Work can trigger a number of negative reactions in people, regardless of whether they have substance abuse disorder. But for individuals in recovery, staying mindful of what prompts compulsivity is crucial to continued good health.
- Does this work support my sobriety?
- Are there people or situations that contribute to my anxiety, depression, or negative feelings of self-worth?
- Do the behaviors of individuals in the workplace present too many challenges to my recovery?
Remember: while you may need employment, you need to also be secure in your journey to long-lasting wellness. Make a point to frequently touch base with your support network and continuing care counselor if you feel threatened in any way.
Use Stress-Relieving Techniques
When you first return to the workplace, it may be helpful to ease into the full routine gradually. Maybe start part time initially, plan for a four-day workweek, or participate in a job-share program. These alternative schedule options can be part of your right-to-work negotiations.
As you become more accustomed to the daily rigors of the job, you’ll need to rely on stress-relieving techniques that bolster your energy, health, and outlook just like everyone else. This is a valid concern, as the American Psychological Association reports that chronic work stress affects approximately 65 percent of people in the United States.
For some people in recovery, triggers and stressors may be the same. But more often than not, work stress likely develops because of:
- Heavy workloads
- Lack of opportunity for promotion or growth
- Low pay
- No control over direction or purpose of tasks
- Inadequate recognition or acknowledgment of effort
- Conflicts in the workplace
Just as you learned to identify key substance abuse triggers, recognize what may add to your stress level and manage your response with a healthy balance of:
- Proper diet and exercise
- Time to relax and recharge
- Firm work boundaries, such as not being available 24/7
- Clear communication regarding goals, objectives, and expectations
Use Your Support Network
Returning to work is an important first step to shaping your new life. You don’t have to do it alone. Whether it’s regular therapy, a sobriety support group, or a strong collective of friends, family, and coworkers, anchor yourself in reassurance, guidance, and reassurance.