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Back to Work after Addiction Treatment – How You Can Make a Difference in Your Employee’s Recovery

Written By: Julie Bowles

(Originally published in Winter Issue of Moods Magazine, 2016,

office deskAddiction in the workplace is nothing new.  Employers have had to deal with the issues relating to addicted employees ever since alcohol became integrated into our society, over 200 years ago.  Early on, employers identified that certain employees were more affected by alcohol, and prone to accidents and low productivity.  However, until the birth of the early-model treatment programs for alcohol in the 1940s, there were few options for employers who wanted to help their employees.  This need led to the development of Occupational Alcoholism Programs, the forerunner of today’s Employee Assistant Programs, or EAPs.

Awareness and understanding of workplace addiction issues continue to grow, with policies and legislation designed to protect both the employer and employee, and a willingness on the part of organizations to support an employee with counselling and treatment.  Research has shown that inpatient addiction treatment can have a dramatic positive impact on employee workplace performance, with one study indicating a 76% increase in productivity, a 76% decrease in absenteeism, and a 91% decrease in incidents of arriving late or leaving early.

But what about post-treatment?  Are employers as comfortable knowing how to manage someone returning to the job after treatment?  Do they understand that the role they play can be just as important as the one they played pre-treatment?  As with any chronic disease, the recovering individual will always need to live with an awareness of the need to maintain their recovery.  Assuming an employee has included his or her employer in the treatment plan, there are many ways the employer can provide support and contribute to the individual’s continued recovery.

Respect the Employee’s Privacy and Confidentiality

Privacy and confidentiality are paramount, both while the individual is in treatment, and upon return to work.  An employee may choose to seek treatment confidentially on their own, using vacation or sick time to cover their absence and not disclosing to their employer.  For a variety of reasons, others may include their manager or supervisor in the process.  While this will open the door for opportunities to support the employee, it also places the responsibility for confidentiality firmly on the shoulders of the manager or supervisor.

Some employees will ask about their colleague; it’s human nature.  Why is he taking time off?  Is she alright?  Where has he gone?  For some, it will be gossip, while for others, it will be genuine concern.  In many cases, the individual’s colleagues will either officially or unofficially know there is a problem.  They may have observed the behaviours first-hand, or had to cover up for uncompleted work and absences.  Once the employee returns from treatment, colleagues will likely notice changes in behaviour, both at work and during social events.

It is the employee’s choice as to what they wish to share and disclose, if anything.  Some will choose to keep their treatment and recovery confidential.  Others will share their story and embrace any support they receive as a result of their disclosure.  Some may even champion recovery amongst their colleagues.  However, regardless of their decision, the employee needs to believe that their privacy and confidentiality will be respected and protected at all times by their employer.

Educate and Be Prepared

One way employers can help alleviate uncomfortable situations such as those described above is to be proactive by providing regular education to all staff about addiction.  Through education and training, all employees can learn about signs and symptoms and what they can do if they are concerned about a colleague’s behaviour.  It will also help reduce the stigma that is still often attached to addiction, and give staff greater comfort in knowing how to respond when a colleague returns to the workplace.

Return to Work

Treatment has been successfully completed and it is time for the employee to return to work.  While the employee hopefully feels like a new person with new behaviours and attitudes, reality will set in when they arrive back at work to face the same stresses, deadlines, conflicts and responsibilities that were there when they left.  Now they need to manage them without their substance or behaviour of choice, while ensuring they meet their workplace expectations.  One of the most dangerous thoughts an employee can have in early recovery is to feel that he must jump back in where he left off and play catch up with his workload.  This attitude can quickly lead to the individual feeling overwhelmed and stressed, resulting in burnout and potentially relapse by returning to their old behaviours.

As an employer, there needs to be a good balance between sensitivity and expectations.  It is important to communicate openly and ensure that the employee understands what is expected of him.  It is important that the employee understands that while the organization wants them to be successful in their recovery, they still need to comply with clearly discussed and documented performance guidelines and expectations.

meetingOne of the most important things a manager can do is to be involved in regular communication with the treatment centre addiction counsellor working with the employee.  This three-way connection between the counsellor, employee, and employer can be the cornerstone for success during the post-treatment, or aftercare, phase of recovery.

With the help of the addiction counsellor, a strong and realistic back to work plan can be developed.  The return date and responsibilities upon return need to be looked at on a case by case basis, however in most situations the recommendation is often for the employee to return to work full time in their existing role.

A back to work plan may also include requirements for regular drug testing, a last chance agreement, and participation in the treatment centre’s aftercare program.  Research has indicated a significant increase in the rate of recovery with participation in multiple aftercare supports.  An important component of a back to work plan should include aftercare participation with attendance monitoring and reporting back to the employer by the addiction counsellor.

Before completing treatment, and with the help of the addiction counsellor, the employee should have developed a detailed relapse prevention plan.  While this plan extends beyond the workplace, it can include important details regarding managing situations while at work, and knowing about resources that can be available.  The addiction counsellor can help identify company EAP resources and support meetings.  Some professionals such as police and lawyers have their own peer support systems.  Some companies have onsite 12-Step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and many unionized workplaces have substance abuse representatives available for support and guidance.

The relapse prevention plan can also provide assistance in dealing with difficult or triggering situations that the employee might encounter as part of his or her job, such as business trips, conferences, sales dinners, and company social events.  While it may not be a requirement for the employee to share the relapse prevention plan, any willingness to include the employer in the workplace-focused plan can only further strengthen the back to work and recovery experience.

There are many ways an employer can help with the transition back to work and provide the support needed to help their employee through the early days of recovery and beyond.  However, it is important to be aware that there is a difference between being supportive and being in charge.  Managers need to be mindful and able to distinguish between monitoring and requiring accountability, and stepping back and trusting their employee, who must want to be in recovery for themselves, not for their manager.  With this shared goal between the employer and employee, there is a good likelihood that everyone will be successful.

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