When an Employee Returns from Rehab: Supporting Active Recovery

04/23/2017 01:22 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2017

Watching an employee spiral downhill from drug abuse can be an emotionally charged and difficult experience for all involved. As a supervisor, it’s natural to breathe a sigh of relief when an employee drug intervention succeeds and the employee enters a drug treatment program. It’s also normal to worry about what happens once that employee returns to work. How can you create a supportive environment for active recovery while protecting the employee’s privacy and avoiding any disruptions to your business?

In addition to complying with legal guidelines including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers also face other practical concerns when the employee returns to work. The following roadmap will help you think through these concerns so your company, team, and employee are all positioned for success.

Understand the problem. Addiction is a disease that does not discriminate. It is not uncommon for high-achieving professionals in finance, law and other highly competitive industries to struggle with substance abuse. Some professionals may use illicit substances to cope with work stress. Others rely on uppers to fuel intense workdays and then turn to opioids to take the edge off once they get home. If an employee is seeking treatment for substance abuse, take a step back and consider your company’s workplace culture. Do you proactively foster a drug-free environment, or have unrealistic performance expectations and deadlines created a culture where substance abuse is tacitly tolerated? As the Mercury News reported in its expose of Silicon Valley’s drug culture, “If your life is spinning out of control and is highly charged with stress, you may believe you can take control by self-medicating.”

It is not possible nor is it a realistic goal to create a totally stress-free work environment. However, everything from deliverable timelines to team dynamics can support or hurt your company’s substance abuse policy. Consider whether your employee’s drug abuse is an isolated incident or if there’s a toxic company culture that’s driving a bigger problem. All companies should have a written substance abuse policy prohibiting drugs and alcohol at work and detailing behavior that will not be tolerated.

Know your obligations and rights as an employer. Substance abuse can be grounds for termination. However, if an employee seeks help, enters a substance abuse program and complies with program guidelines, they may be protected from future termination in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“The Americans with Disabilities Act offers protections to employees who choose to seek treatment for substance abuse,” says Amanda Kight, cofounder of Wellness Retreat Recovery. “Additionally, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take an unpaid leave of absence for up to 12 weeks within a 12-month period. However, neither of these acts outlines guidelines for how the employee will transition back to work. Therefore, it is so important to set up a ‘Return to Work Agreement’, ideally before the employee departs for treatment.”

A “return-to-work agreement” (RTWA) is a written document outlining expectations for the employee upon completion of drug treatment. The document may include future drug testing at work to ensure compliance with recovery and detailed steps should a relapse occur. Employees are held accountable for complying with this document. Failure to do so can be a fireable offense.

Respect employee privacy. Depending on the circumstances surrounding your employee’s departure, fellow team members and other employees may be aware that this individual is receiving inpatient substance abuse treatment. It’s natural for employees to be curious about their co-worker’s health and well-being. Unfortunately, the office rumor mill can also be pretty vicious. As a supervisor, you must make it clear that any gossip about the employee will not be tolerated. It’s up to you to create and enforce a respectful, supportive environment.

When your employee returns from treatment, they may be eager to share their experience as part of the recovery process. In other cases, the employee may need more time to adjust to sobriety and returning to work before discussing their treatment experience. Remind team members that the best way to offer support is by treating the employee with respect and compassion. It’s not their job to “police” his or her sobriety.

Educate yourself about relapse symptoms and speak with the employee’s drug counselor or sober living sponsor. Should you worry the employee may be struggling post-treatment, reach out to his or her sponsor for support.

Bottom line:

Working 40+ hours a week in close proximity to your employees can create a close, family-like bond. When an employee is struggling with substance abuse, it’s natural to want to help. However, it is important to balance this desire with legal guidelines and professional ethics.

The most important thing you can do is to create a supportive, positive and drug-free work environment. Doing so not only supports your employee’s recovery but also benefits everyone at your company.

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