The Process of Employees in Recovery of Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Workplace substance abuse amongst employees isn't always a current issue. When an employee completes their treatment and is officially drug-free, they are now in recovery. This does not mean that substance abuse for them is now a non-issue or that employers can scrap any substance abuse resources. For many, recovery is a one day at a time deal; they face whatever issues they are presented with as they come and constantly are fighting against relapse.

This article will look at what employers and employees can expect with recovery and its presence in the workplace. Topics will include actions that employers can take to help, resources for handling relapse, sobriety programs, and issues surround privacy. Also included in the discussion is what to expect in hiring new employees who are in recovery.

How Employers Can Help

To support any employees in their recovery efforts and to encourage continue sobriety in the workplace, employers can take action. In some cases, simply offering your support to your employees who are in recovery can mean a world of a difference. Not only does it help build--or re-build--trust between you and the employee, it also opens up the lines of communication necessary for a drug-free work environment.

Employers can also take action to help the employee acclimate to being back at work:

  • Respect Their Privacy--There already is some awkwardness and adjustment for an employee who is coming back to work after completing substance abuse treatment. Talking about their addiction and treatment can add to the situation. Even if an employer was aware of the employee's addiction before they went into treatment, others in the workplace may not be. Co-workers may ask about the employee's absence, but their employer should not disclose anything about their addiction or treatment without their consent. Not only is this disrespectful and unprofessional, but it completely violates any confidentially between the employer and the employee. Employers shouldn't pry to feed their own curiosity either; what happened during treatment is the employee's business alone and it's their decision if/what they want to share about it.

  • Educate Yourself--Employers may want to look into resources and information about addiction treatment and recovery before the employee returns to work. This can help them be prepared for any assistance that the employee asks of them, and can help the employer educate their staff. Education can also help an employer recognize the signs of relapse, which can allow them to assist the employee if necessary.

  • Plan--Having a plan in place for an employee as they return to the workplace after treatment can help them acclimate. While the employee has certainly changed, their place of work is still the same as it was before treatment. There are a lot of stressors present that can interfere with their recovery and complicate matters if they dive right into their old workload. To help, employers can lay out a plan with adjusted guidelines for the employee to catch up and acclimate. One option is to have the employee start off with a small portion of their former workload. As they progress and get more comfortable, slowly increase it. If they are never fully alright with amount of work they used to do before treatment, then additional resources to help them may be needed.

Resources for Relapse

During recovery, there is always the potential for relapse. It can be incredibly discouraging for a recovering user to relapse, and it isn't uncommon for it to be viewed as a sign of failure. The truth is relapse is a part of the recovery process; about 40-60% of substance abusers will relapse at some point during their recovery. Being able to overcome a relapse often is dependent on what resources a person has.

The workplace can still be involved when an employee relapses: exposure to triggers, access to resources, and onset of warning signs can happen while they are at work. To help their employees out, employers may want to consider implementing policies and offering resources regarding relapse. Some of this can be in the form of education--recognizing signs of relapse and what others can do to help. Here's what to look for:

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Workplace Drug Use - An HR Guide course?
  • Resurgence of Old Habits--There are some habits that a person develops when they have an addiction. Reverting back to behavior that fostered their drug use in the first place may be a sign that they are about to relapse. They may become secretive or defensive about their actions. There may also be some denial that about what they are doing and that it is a sign of potential relapse. Any significant changes in the behavior of an employee in addiction recovery should be taken seriously.

  • Deteriorating Social Relationships--Peer support during recovery can be crucial to its continued success. Not only does it help a recovering person know that they are not alone, it can help them rebuild their sense of trust with others. As a person approaches relapse, they often pull away from those necessary socializations. They may inadvertently sabotage their relationships in the process by lying and arguing with others. Co-workers should fight against any isolation tactics the person tries; be patient and try not to take the things they may say personally. Let them know you're there to help them.

  • Reminiscing About The Past--A little nostalgia doesn't hurt every now and then, but for addicts it can cause them to romanticize their addiction. Remembering the "good ol' times" can tempt them to resume using in an effort to relieve the memories. Often during such situations, they are blinded by the things they enjoyed and can't see the things that made them want to get sober in the first place. If an employee or co-worker who is in recovery begins talking about their addiction in such a positive way, try to counter with positive aspects about their sobriety. Reminding them of some of the negative things, while hurtful, may make them snap out of their reminiscing.

  • Withdrawal Symptoms--If a person suddenly begins to exhibit symptoms of withdrawal, it means they have started using again. All hope is not lost, however; the presence of withdrawal signs means they're not continuing just yet. Talk to them as empathetically as possible. Don't get angry or confrontational, as this may make them turn away from you. Express your concern and offer your support.

There are recovery support programs that employers can implement or provide access to in the workplace in order to counteract relapse. Substance abuse EAPs often include recovery resources in their offerings, but the details may vary from program to program. Employers should check with their EAP network to see what's available and the details involved.

Recovery programs are also available through federal organizations and treatment programs. SAMHSA has a massive database of help programs for nearly every stage of treatment and recovery that is searchable based on location. Many mutual and peer support programs like Alcoholics Anonymous offer recovery resources and programs. Employers can gather information from these resources and have them available should a recovering employee need them.

Hiring Employees in Recovery

In some cases, a person doesn't have a job to go back to after treatment. This can generate some stability issues as they try to juggle recovery with job hunting. Success in this endeavor can be difficult; addiction can destroy a person's reputation and make it hard to get references. Their history of substance abuse will not be something they can hide and will undoubtedly come up in some capacity during background checks. Even though there are legal protections, that doesn't mean they won't face stigma and discrimination with potential employers.

From an employer's perspective, there are some understandable risks in hiring a person with a history of substance abuse issues. The first thing that comes to mind is fear that they will resume using at their new job and cause problems. Substance abuse also tends to generate multiple gaps in people's employment histories, which can be affected by requirements employers are looking for. Any criminal activity associated with a person's substance abuse can also legally prevent them from working in certain fields. Although these may present as downsides for hiring an employee in recovery, there are a lot of benefits they can bring into a company.

  • Education--It may be surprising, but many people with substance abuse issues go on to work in treatment and advocacy. Their personal experience with addiction makes them an amassing asset for substance abuse education. 12-Step Programs often instill into members the practice of paying it forward, and many find that they enjoy helping others. Companies who are looking to create EAP programs and other substance abuse resources should consider staffing them with candidates that are in recovery. Not only will you get an amazing new employee, but your current employees get a unique resources that can help them with their recovery efforts.

  • It Helps the Community--The longer a person stays unemployed, the less likely it is that they will find a job. This can generate a domino effect for the local economy, as no job means they have no money to put back into the community. Constantly passing on candidates with a history of substance abuse can drive those in recovery towards a relapse, which brings a whole new set of problems into a community that may not be equipped to handle an influx of substance abuse.

  • Motivation--Since those in recovery want to improve themselves in all aspects of their lives, they are often highly motivated workers. Employment means they are on the right tract to getting their lives back and reaching their recovery goals. Those who are dedicated to remaining in recovery will work hard to make sure they stay there. The employers who give them a chance will find that they are incredibly loyal and thankful for the stability a new job gives them.

  • Productivity--When in recovery, most former addicts will avoid any addictive substance altogether to avoid relapse and to keep their hard-fought sobriety. They're not going to go out and party every night and show up to work late because of a hangover. They take care of themselves, which can mean they have fewer issues that would prompt them to take sick leave and fall behind on work. The only issue that may prevent a company's productivity from benefiting is if the person has health complications from their substance abuse. When disclosing their past substance abuse issues, most candidates will be honest about anything related to their addiction that might be a cause for concern.

To ease some of the risks associated with hiring those in recovery, employers may want to establish certain guidelines. This could be things like a minimum requirement for time spend in recovery, contingency agreements for unsatisfactory work, and what is expected of them in the event of relapse.

Privacy and Other Issues

Having employees in recovery in the workplace may be new territory for many businesses. As part of their preparation and policies, employer should look into the issues that may present themselves and how they can be handled. It is always a good idea to consult with legal counsel to ensure that you are acting within the law and are not violating you rights or the rights of your employees. Make sure your policies comply and that you have ample time to make adjustments.

The two biggest issues that may occur, as discussed before, are instances of relapse and employee privacy. Even if the employer is prepared to deal with these, their other employees may not be. Ignorance is not always bliss and employees may be aware of a co-worker's substance abuse issues. Making information available on existing policies, resources, and training offerings can help quell some concerns. Be sure to respect the privacy of the employee with substance abuse issues and not disclose personal details about their condition.

There is also the possibility of hostility and retaliation for actions the employee did while under the influence. Some people hang onto grudges for a wide range of things, so it is possible that another employee may blame their co-worker and their substance abuse for problems in the office. Even if the employee isn't actually at fault, it is best to establish ground rules for such instances. Encourage any employee who has a problem to submit a formal complaint with management instead of taking action by themselves. Penalties for retaliation may also be considered, but they should be kept appropriate for the situation.