Substance Abuse in the Workplace: What to Do When an Employee Returns from Rehab

Business.com / HR Solutions / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Returning to work is a critical part of recovery for many former addicts. As a supervisor, learn how you can best support an employee.

As a supervisor, watching an employee struggle with substance abuse can be incredibly tough. 

Employers do have a right to fire employees if their job performance declines due to substance abuse. However, many wish to help their employees constructively address addiction through a substance abuse treatment program.

With all the focus on helping employees enter treatment, it’s important to remember that rehab is just the first step. Helping employees re-enter in the workplace after treatment can be just as challenging, and it's just as important for long-term sobriety.

Returning to Work After Rehab: What to Expect

Returning to work is a critical part of recovery for many former addicts. Work provides a structured routine, stimulates the mind, and offers opportunities for socialization and positive interactions in a safe, supportive and controlled environment. You are not alone.

Many substance abuse treatment programs, like Chapters Capistrano in Orange County, CA, offer online resources to help employers understand the best ways to support their employees.

“Working puts the brain to use in more constructive ways,” says Deborah Beaver, Clinical Director & Therapist at Chapters Capistrano. “The former addict is busy problem solving, communicating, and being creative, which helps to establish new patterns of thinking. Work builds news skills and helps an individual in recovery expand on his or her potential in ways never before imagined.”

That said, the return to work after rehab won’t be all sunshine and rainbows, either. From dealing with the office rumor mill to responding to a relapse, keep the following guidelines in mind for supporting employees in their return to work.

Related Article: Trust the Process: 10 Tips To Empower And Encourage Your Staff

Establish a Return-to-Work Agreement

return-to-work agreement (RTWA) is a written document that outlines an employer’s expectation for a returning employee. The U.S. Department of Labor recommends an RTWA be in place before an employee returns to the workplace. This agreement will outline expectations – including complying with a drug-free workplace – and acknowledge that if the employee fails to meet these standards, the failure to do so may be grounds for termination. This agreement is an important accountability tool. 

This agreement will outline expectations – including complying with a drug-free workplace – and acknowledge that if the employee fails to meet these standards, the failure to do so may be grounds for termination. This agreement is an important accountability tool. 

Confidentiality Comes First

Above all else, remember that neither you (as the supervisor) nor your returning employee owes anyone else an explanation for your employee’s absence or past behaviors. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from being fired for poor job performance due to substance abuse, as long as the employee has chosen to enter treatment. Your company may also have specific policies in place for dealing with this tough situation. No matter what, your employee deserves to be treated with respect. While some recovering addicts may wish to be open about their journey to connect with or inspire others, not everyone is ready for this step. If he or she is not ready to talk about their recovery, respect this desire for privacy.

Your company may also have specific policies in place for dealing with this tough situation. No matter what, your employee deserves to be treated with respect. While some recovering addicts may wish to be open about their journey to connect with or inspire others, not everyone is ready for this step. If he or she is not ready to talk about their recovery, respect this desire for privacy.

Dealing With the Office Rumor Mill

Keep in mind that it is often with mixed emotions that a recovering addict returns to work following rehab. Returning to a former position can be challenging, especially for an employee who fears dealing with overly curious co-workers. 

While not every co-worker may be trying to dig up dirt for the company office mill, even co-workers who are trying to be supportive may inadvertently ask inappropriate questions. It may be helpful to have one or two co-workers who know what the employee has been through and are able to be supportive. These people can be a positive addition the employee’s recovery system. As a supervisor, your job is to support your employee in the best way you can by redirecting attention to his or her new attitude and professional focus.

As a supervisor, your job is to support your employee in the best way you can by redirecting attention to his or her new attitude and professional focus.

Watch Out for “Workaholism”

Some individuals in recovery end up substituting one addiction for another. Alcoholism or drug abuse can morph into workaholism. Your employee may use job demands as an excuse to escape other challenging emotional situations or avoid dealing with painful feelings and broken relationships post-rehab. Yes, as a supervisor you may love your employee’s newfound work ethic. It’s just as important, however, that he or she makes time to reconnect with friends and family, attend meetings, and enjoy sober-related activities.

Related Article: 6 Ways to Prevent Employee Burnout

Bottom Line

It is not your job to be your employee’s sponsor, therapist, or best friend. You and your staff may benefit from talking with an addiction specialist or therapist who can answer questions about recovery and how best support your employee during this process. There is always hope!

Login to Business.com

Login with Your Account
Forgot Password?
New to Business.com? Join for Free

Join Business.com

Sign Up with Your Social Account
Create an Account
Sign In

Use of this website constitutes acceptance of the Terms of Use, Community Guidelines, and Privacy Policy.

Reset Your Password

Enter your email address and we'll send you an email with a link to reset your password.

Cancel