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Returning to Work after Substance Abuse Treatment

Frank is about to return to work after a four-month absence for drug and alcohol treatment. He is proud of the progress he has made and is certain that he will be more effective at work. Yet, he has concerns about how his co-workers will receive his return. Frank did not tell anyone why he was taking leave; he simply referred to a “medical issue.”  Now he fears that he will be questioned about his health.

Should he open up about the real reason for his absence? Will he face ridicule and discrimination and his reputation become sullied? Will his supervisor trust him less and treat him differently? These are the kinds of concerns that many employees face every day.

Prevalence of Substance Use and Treatment in the Workplace

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association (SAMSHA) reported in a 2014 national drug use survey that approximately 70 percent of drug and alcohol users were employed either full or part time. About 10 percent of these employees were considered to have substance abuse or dependence problems. So a lot of employees are technically in need of substance abuse treatment. Unfortunately, statistic show that only about 10 percent of people who could use a drug or alcohol treatment program check themselves into a substance abuse facility.

Employers have noted the trends and their solution has been to create Employee Assistance Programs, or EAPs, to serve the needs of employees for a variety of mental health and other social needs, but mainly to encourage employees to get help for substance abuse issues. In the U.S., more than 97% of companies with greater than 5,000 employees offer EAP services to employees. In addition, 80% of companies that have between 1,000 and 5,000 employees, and 75% of companies that have between 250 and 1,000 employees also have EAP programs. Ironically, only about 5 percent of employees who could access EAP services do so. Studies indicate that concerns about stigma, job discrimination and possible job loss keep employees from seeking services. In addition, almost 40 percent of eligible employees are typically unaware of the availability of their EAP services.

So Frank is not typical of the substance-using employee. He has chosen to seek treatment, while most others in his situation don’t. Does this mean that, for Frank, there may be less understanding and support for his choices than he needs and hopes for? Frank wisely decides to be discerning about when and where he discloses the truth about his absence.

What Issues Do People Returning to Work After Substance Abuse Treatment Face?

What can Frank expect on his first day back? First of all, Frank can expect that people will question him. Some may be genuinely concerned about him and his health and want reassurance that he is now well. Others may ask questions out of idle curiosity. Frank will also have to deal with changes that have happened while he was away. He may be behind on pertinent informational updates regarding his duties, and certain job skills may have become a bit rusty. Frank will need a little time to adjust to changes and bring himself up to speed on the day-to-day working of his job.

Some employers have policies to help employees readjust to the work routine after they return from substance abuse treatment. Expectations typically outlined in a Return to Work Agreement (RTWA) may include requirements for complying with Drug-Free Workplace policies (for instance, submitting to regular drug tests). The RTWA also defines acceptable work standards, and if the employee fails to meet these standards, termination of employment can be a consequence. RTWAs are more common in industries that have more stringent Drug-Free Workplace policies, such as businesses in the transportation industry, that are regulated by the Department of Transportation, in order to assure safety standards for the public.

As far as discrimination or unfair treatment, Frank need not worry, as he is protected by government guidelines and policies, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act. (FLMA). However, such protection is not automatic or standardized; it is based on an individual’s specific case. To qualify for ADA protection, Frank had to clarify with his employer and his Human Resources representative why he has a “disability” or impairment that substantially limits his major life activities, such as work. Once established, Frank was then eligible for “reasonable accommodations” to help him manage his job duties. For instance, he will be allowed to leave work early to attend AA or NA meetings. He is to be given adequate information and possibly additional training in order to bring his skills back to standard, without this reflecting poorly on his work evaluation.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Frank would not have been obligated to disclose the reason for his absence, if his time off was not to exceed twelve weeks. However, Frank decided to openly discuss his plans with his boss, and with the boss’s consent, Frank was able to extend the period which he could be absent without losing his job. Many times, as in Frank’s case, employers value the resources that an employee brings to the company, and they are happy to help an employee who volunteers for treatment get the help they need and be able to return to work unimpaired.

The First Day Back: Meeting the Challenge

Frank takes a deep breath and enters the office, where twenty curious faces turn toward him. One fellow employee jumps up and gives him a hug, saying how nice it is to have him back, and to see that he looks so well. Other co-workers simply nod or shout out, “Welcome back, Frank!” Frank nods, says “thank you” and makes his way to his desk. The workday soon flows along in its routine way.

At lunch Frank is approached by the co-worker who hugged him, a man with whom he has previously had a friendship, and therefore whom he trusts.  Frank decides to open up about the true reason for his absence. The friend listens empathetically and after Frank has finished, he quietly admits to Frank that he, too, has struggled with substance abuse. But he has never wanted to let his co-workers know. Frank realizes that he made the right choice – in this case – to be open and honest with his friend. Frank begins to inform his co-worker about the company EAP program, which the friend had been unaware was available to him.

It looks like Frank’s return to work is going very well, after all.



Images Courtesy of iStock

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