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Updated Apr 16, 2024

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

If one of your employees struggles with substance abuse in the workplace, they may want to seek treatment. Here are several tips to help you support them when they are ready to return to work.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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Watching an employee struggle with substance abuse can be incredibly tough. Employers may have a right to terminate an employee if their job performance declines because of substance abuse. However, many wish to help their team member 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 staff members re-enter the workplace after treatment can be just as challenging, and it’s just as crucial for long-term sobriety.

Supporting employees who return to work after rehab

Returning to work can be an important milestone for post-rehab employees, but there are several measures you should take to help ensure a successful transition. Keep the following guidelines in mind for supporting employees in their return to work.

1. Establish a return-to-work agreement.

A 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 a staff member returns to the workplace. This agreement outlines expectations – including complying with a drug-free workplace – and acknowledges that failure to meet these standards may be grounds for termination. This agreement is an important accountability tool. 

FYIDid you know
If you're drafting a return-to-work agreement for the first time, here is a sample return-to-work agreement to get you started. It is always a good idea to seek legal guidance when drafting employment contracts.

2. Support the employee with a return-to-work plan.

If you want to set your returning team member up for success, have a return-to-work plan in place. This will include a myriad of work arrangements and benefits that accommodate the employee’s new needs. For example, it can be helpful to offer flexible work arrangements. This allows the employee to choose a work schedule that works best for both your company and the worker. This often includes working four 10-hour days or allowing some days to work remotely. It gives them a better opportunity to do things like attending support groups and required meetings.

Another part of your return-to-work plan might include frequently checking in with the employee to assess their success or administering random drug tests to ensure they are substance-free.

3. Reintegrate the employee back into the office.

Keep in mind that it is often with mixed emotions that a recovering addict returns to the workplace following rehab. Returning to a former position can be challenging, especially for an employee who fears dealing with overly curious or critical co-workers. While not every co-worker may be trying to dig up dirt for the company office mill, even colleagues who are trying to be supportive may inadvertently ask inappropriate questions.

It can be helpful to have one or two leaders who know what the recovering employee has been through and are able to help integrate them back into the office scene. These teammates can be a positive addition to the employee’s recovery system.

TipBottom line
You and your staff may benefit from talking with an addiction specialist or therapist who can answer questions about recovery and how best to support your employee during this process.

4. Offer mental health benefits.

Mental health benefits can be a great way to support employees who are returning to work after rehab. You can offer mental health resources such as counseling, therapy and employee assistance programs (EAP). Host regular check-in meetings with your employees to ensure they are doing okay, and encourage employees to take mental health days when needed. When offering these benefits, it’s essential to explain them to your staff clearly, so they know what options are readily available.

FYIDid you know
Employee mental health has become a top priority, so it is a good idea for employers to support the mental health of their entire staff, not just rehabilitated employees.

5. Watch out for workaholism.

Some individuals in recovery end up substituting one addiction for another. Alcoholism or drug abuse can morph into workaholism. Your worker 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 an employer, you may love your employee’s newfound work ethic. It’s just as important, however, that they make time to reconnect with friends and family, attend meetings and enjoy sober-related activities. [Read related article: 10 Ways to Prevent Employee Burnout]

6. Respect the employee’s privacy.

Above all else, remember that neither you, nor your returning employee, owes anyone else an explanation for your employee’s absence or past behaviors. Your company may have specific policies in place for dealing with this tough situation; but, no matter what, your returning staff member 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 they are not ready to talk about their recovery, respect this desire for privacy.

Addiction as a disability

If you’re in the position of welcoming an employee back into the workplace after rehab, there are a few legalities you should know. For instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from being fired or discriminated against for substance abuse, as long as the employee has chosen to enter treatment. So, you can’t terminate an employee based on their decision to enter rehab. Qualifying employees may also be covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to seek treatment, and the employer is required to maintain confidentiality.

If you have an employee in addiction recovery, be sure you are navigating their employment within the law. If the employee comes back to work and subsequently underperforms, consider working with them to create a performance improvement plan to get them back on track.

Returning after rehab

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.

In addition to being beneficial for the returning employee, welcoming an employee back after rehab can also benefit your business. For example, if the employee was a high-performer before the substance abuse began, there is a good chance they will become a high-performer once again.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Skye Schooley is a dedicated business professional who is especially passionate about human resources and digital marketing. For more than a decade, she has helped clients navigate the employee recruitment and customer acquisition processes, ensuring small business owners have the knowledge they need to succeed and grow their companies. In recent years, Schooley has enjoyed evaluating and comparing HR software and other human resources solutions to help businesses find the tools and services that best suit their needs. With a degree in business communications, she excels at simplifying complicated subjects and interviewing business vendors and entrepreneurs to gain new insights. Her guidance spans various formats, including newsletters, long-form videos and YouTube Shorts, reflecting her commitment to providing valuable expertise in accessible ways.
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