Your job is a big part of your life. We may not want to think about it, but we tend to spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our friends and family. If we are lucky, we enjoy being at work, as we like the people or find the work fulfilling. For people battling addiction, though, even the best job scenarios can come with a variety of stresses which can lead to relapse. That’s why, in a perfect world, addiction in the workplace should be an open subject of stigma-free discussion. (Emphasis on should).
If you are wondering whether to tell your employer about your addiction, here are a few things to consider before you make that decision.
First, Some Soul Searching…
Every workplace is like its own country. It has its own culture and customs. Since you are a citizen of that place of employment, you are in a unique position to figure out whether it’s a good idea to talk with your employer about your addiction. The following questions will help you do a thorough gut check before moving forward.
How Long Have You Been There?
If you’ve been at a job for less than a year, you may not feel that your spot is secure or that this news may lead to your termination in some capacity. This is a big reason why people are fearful to be open and honest with their employer and it can dictate their decision on whether to reveal their addiction status.
Has Drug Use Ever Impacted Your Work?
This is a question that your employer will certainly ask. They will want to know to what extent addiction has been a problem. It is important that you are truthful with them, as it will impact how they move forward with you. But first, consider policy and the law (more on that later),
What is the Company’s Policy On Drug Use?
While this is an emotional situation, it is still a business one as well. Familiarize yourself with your company’s guidelines and policies. This may also come down to what your legal rights are as well.
How Does the Company Treat Employees in General?
You can learn a lot by observing how management treats their employees. Are they empathetic toward illnesses and family emergencies? Do they look for performance or watch the clock on employee arrivals and departures? Are they more concerned with rules or the wellbeing of their employees? Finally, ask yourself whether management fosters a team environment or if it is every person for themselves.
In addition to the above, it is helpful to know about the regulatory environment in which your employer operates.
Addiction in the Workplace: Two Laws to Know
Naturally, there are plenty of examples of a business not being understanding about an employees’ struggle with addiction. However, there are limits to what companies can do.
There are two overarching federal laws are relevant here. As a person in addiction or recovery, it’s good to have at least a passing familiarity with them.
The Americans with Disabilities Act Protects People in Addiction Recovery from Discrimination
While current illegal drug use is not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), those in recovery from addiction are. This means that you may have a legal case if your employer terminates you and it can be proven that it is directly related to your past addiction to drugs or alcohol. Of course, this can be difficult to prove.
You may find yourself suddenly being treated differently. For example, you are left out of decision making you were once privy to, your hours are substantially changed, or you are suddenly receiving written reprimands where previously you had a stellar work record. This may be an attempt to create a paper trail so that the employer can legally fire you in another way.
Now, if your drug use was impacting your work versus having addiction issues before you were hired, then you may want to consider that as well in your decision to disclose.
In either case, seek legal counsel before proceeding.
The Family and Medical Leave Act Protects Your Job if You Need Addiction Treatment
You also are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if you choose to seek treatment for addiction.
The FMLA allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for your or your family’s medical condition that causes you to be unable to perform your job. Your group health insurance, if you have any, will continue and your job is protected while you are gone. (Wage and Hour Division, US Department of Labor, 2012)
Next question: which employers are required to comply with the FMLA? They are:
- All public-sector (governmental) employers
- Public or private elementary or secondary schools
- Private-sector employers that employee 50 or more employees for at least 20 weeks in the last or previous calendar year
Employees must meet the following requirements to receive FMLA as well:
- Employees are those who work any part of a week, and workweeks do not have to be consecutive
- Employees must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months
- Has logged 1,250 hours of work with the employer during the 12 months preceding leave
- Works at a location where the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles
(Wage and Hour Division, US Department of Labor)
The best thing to do when it comes to these matters is to seek an attorney in your local jurisdiction… before you take any action with your employers.
It’s important to be fully informed before disclosing your addiction status.
Still Want to Disclose Your Addiction? Know Your Options (and talk with an Attorney)
If you still feel like it’s a good decision to let your employer know about your addiction, here are your options as well as few steps to consider taking:
- Approach your human resources department – but remember, they are not your friend: If your company has well-established protocol regarding dealing with an employee’s addiction and you feel assured that you will not be targeted or negatively impacted for coming forward, you can consider approaching your human resources department about your addiction. They will know how to assist you and ensure that you are operating within the law and company policies. Remember, however, that a human resources department’s main objective is to protect the company. And one of the first things that can happen is that your immediate supervisor is notified. Therefore, it would be wise to seek legal counsel if you feel the need to disclose but are not sure how it will be received.
- Seek out an understanding manager you can trust: The person you really are going to want to talk to is the manager you work and interact with the most. This may not be your main boss, but it’s someone who understands you and can focus on helping you as a person. If they appreciate you as a worker, they will appreciate the challenges you are facing and do everything they can to support you and your recovery. They also assist with (or even handle) the communication between you and upper management. One caution: Judge wisely regarding the person in whom you choose to confide. Make sure you know the content of their character before disclosing your addiction status.
- Avoid situations that could lead to a relapse: This is where mistakes are commonly made… and not just with company events or office parties. One of the most common reasons for relapse is stress at work. Falling into old habits is easy if work stress is not addressed. It can be as simple as leaving for work at a different time to avoid traffic (and the resulting anxiety) on your morning commute.
- Make a list of goals and ways to improve at work: Whether you’ve been there a long time or are starting a new beginning, focus on doing the job well. Your productivity and performance will speak for themselves. And, if you are returning from a rehab stay, you want to show your colleagues that a healthier, cleaner you is a more productive you. Your improvements at work will encourage everyone around you to be even more supportive as they recognize the positive changes and want them to continue.
Above All, Prioritize your Sobriety
Regardless of your final decision on disclosure, understand that work has a major impact on your day-to-day life… and the decisions that impact those days.
You can have a great day and substance use may not even come to mind. On the other hand, you may have a stressful day and the next thing you know, all you can think of is taking one of those substances to help manage the stress. Even if your company is willing to be supportive, you will still have stressful days at work and you will want to develop healthy ways of managing that stress.
The bottom line is that workplaces can come and go. Your sobriety is your priority. Investigate ways to minimize stress and keep your well-won recovery gains in place… no matter what happens, on the job or off.
Wage and Hour Division, US Department of Labor. (n.d.). Employer’s Guide to the family and medical leave act – dol. U.S. Department of Labor . Retrieved November 15, 2021, from U.S. Department of Labor
Wage and Hour Division, US Department of Labor. (2012). FMLA: Fact sheets. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from Department of Labor Fact Sheets
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