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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.

Five Ways to Support Employees with Addiction or Substance Abuse

According to a study conducted in 2004, 76.8% of people with alcohol or drug addictions are employed. The impact of addiction in the workplace is costly but more importantly can affect the health and safety of all stakeholders involved. How can we improve the health and safety of Canadian employees? As an employer, what are your responsibilities? What can you do to support your employees?

There is so much information available about mental health for workplaces to help them understand how to provide a culture that is stigma free and open for discussion. Nevertheless, many challenges still exist for employees struggling with addiction. A lack of experience and information on how to manage addiction in the workplace along with stigma- remain as factors that create barriers for Canadian employees to seek help.

Perhaps, the question that often comes to mind when people encounter someone who is abusing drugs or alcohol while on the job: Is this a workplace issue or a personal issue? Should I address the problem?

When alcohol or drugs are being abused on the job it affects the health and safety of those employed at the company and those using its goods and services. Therefore, THIS IS a workplace issue that needs to be addressed. Bill C-45 a criminal code that governs corporations and their representatives, states that employers have a responsibility to ensure that they prevent any bodily harm to everyone that is involved or affected from work or tasks performed.

Employers have a responsibility to address substance abuse in the workplace because everyone can benefit when an employee recovers and gets well. When companies begin to support employees that have addiction or substance abuse problems it can lead to an improvement in absenteeism and lateness, reduction in accidents, improvement in productivity and reduction in company’s wasted materials.

Here are some simple ways to support employees that are struggling with addiction or substance abuse:

  1. A Substance Abuse Policy is an effective way to communicate employee expectations and the company’s commitment to support and accommodate employees who need support with addiction recovery. A substance abuse policy must be communicated on a regular basis to employees that are covered under the policy. This can explain and provide direction on what to do when an employee uses drugs or alcohol while on the job, the consequences that employees face if they don’t abide by the policy, drug testing procedures, employee assistance programs available, and return-to-work procedures.
  2. Create a list of resources and addiction treatment options that employees can reference. This list should be made available to all employees and should be easy to access.
  3. Provide education about what addiction looks like and why people begin to abuse drugs/ alcohol. Education can help employees understand how to support those that are struggling as well as remove negative stereotypes often associated with addiction. Stigma is often the reason why people who want help don’t communicate their struggle with others. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association in Ontario, “employees who have battled these issues say that having a supportive manager says, ‘We need your skills, we need you here, so tell me what you need from us’ can make a big difference. Employers can help employees build their self-esteem, confidence and loyalty to the organization when they make employees feel valuable and valued.”[1]
  4. Provide health benefits that offer a more “comprehensive coverage” for addiction that includes addiction assessment (screening), treatment, aftercare and counselling.[2]
  5. An employer may approach an employee. This should be done in a safe, confidential manner and at an appropriate time for the employee and all other parties involved. Please note: It is NOT the responsibility of the employer to diagnose, merely offer support and the evidence for concern within the workplace. Leave it up to the professionals to accurately diagnose and start treatment planning. To learn more about how to effectively approach an employee whom you suspect is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, click here.
  6. The Edgewood Health Network is the only national network of adult inpatient and outpatient treatment services across the country, provides 24/7 help, and an open-source assessment tool. We can help you with workplace interventions and provide a range of addiction treatment programs. In addition, we supply continuing care post-treatment services that includes testing, reporting and workplace re-integration. Give us a call to learn how we can help your workplace: 1-800-683-0111 or email us: [email protected]


[1] Substance Use, Misuse and Abuse at Work. Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario. (February 2016) Retrieved from:

[2] [2]Slavit, Wendy et al. An Employer’s Guide to Workplace Substance Abuse: Strategies and Treatment. National Business Group on Health: Center For Prevention and Health Services. (August 2009) Retrieved from: