You’ve just accomplished a big goal — becoming sober. Now, it is time to return to work. You may have some ambivalence about going back to work. On one hand, working will help you feel like a productive member of society, take care of financial needs, and get back into a routine. On the other hand, your co-workers will likely ask where you have been. You might worry about being fired if people find out that you took leave for addiction treatment. You’ll also probably face triggers in the workplace that could lead to a relapse. How do you deal with these challenges? Here are some tips.
Know Your Rights Under the Law
If you recently took leave for substance abuse treatment, it is important to know that there are laws that protect you from being fired or discriminated against at work.
Family and Medical Leave Act
According to the United States Department of Labor, a person may take time off work for addiction treatment under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Employers cannot fire an employee for taking FMLA for substance abuse treatment in most cases. All public agencies, private schools and employers that have more than 50 workers must follow FMLA guidelines. Under this law, workers can take up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave. Employees can also take FMLA leave to help care for a close family member who is receiving addiction treatment. Your employer must also allow you to have time off work for follow-up doctor and therapy appointments as outlined in your treatment plan. To qualify for FMLA leave, the substance abuse treatment must be given by a health care provider.
Americans With Disabilities Act
Both drug addiction and alcoholism are considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, these two conditions are treated differently. A person with an alcohol use disorder is considered to have a disability under the ADA. The ADA only protects someone who is addicted to drugs if he or she is not currently using drugs. If you return to work after rehab, you are protected from discrimination due to treatment and past substance abuse. Nonetheless, you might not be covered if you continue to use illegal substances after returning to work.
Know What to Say to Managers and Co-Workers
Your managers and co-workers will likely be curious about where you have been. Chances are, they will ask questions. If you tell them that you have been off work for a medical reason, they might want to know why and wonder if you are OK.
There are several federal and state laws that protect your right to confidentiality when you take family medical leave. These laws include the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Therefore, you are not required to explain where you were to either your co-workers or your managers. Human resources workers are the only ones who have to know the reason for your absence. Human resources representatives must maintain your privacy.
What if you want to disclose the reasons for your absence? There are pros and cons to telling people where you have been. Telling co-workers about your treatment might help encourage others who are also struggling with these issues to get help. Conversely, since there is a stigma about substance abuse, it could lead to judgment from managers and co-workers. However, it is essential to understand that there are laws prohibiting an employer from discriminating against you for having a history of substance abuse. If you disclose to your manager your substance abuse history and are then passed over for a promotion, you can take action against your employer for discrimination.
Plan for Continuing Care
The transition back to work can be stressful for someone who has a history of substance abuse. You might experience shame and guilt about your substance abuse history, especially if co-workers find out. Additionally, there will be challenges that you face that will test your sobriety, such as being encouraged to drink at holiday parties or other functions.
One of the best ways to manage work-related triggers and to stay sober is with continuing care. Continuing care treatment may consist of outpatient therapy appointments, 12-step groups and other support groups. Continuing care can help you learn to cope with work-related stressors, manage negative emotions and deal with other challenges on the path toward sobriety.
Returning to work after treatment has its trials, but remember, you’re on a path to a healthier, better life overall. By understanding your rights, how to deal with co-workers and pursuing continuing treatment, the transition can become smoother.