Recovering from addiction is a huge accomplishment. Oftentimes, though, the process of reentering the workforce feels awkward or stressful, which is the last thing people in recovery should have to deal with. So we put together this guide to help you navigate the unique challenges that might arise from either returning to your old job or starting a new one.
Return to a Previous Job Vs. Find a New Job
If you have a job to return to, the decision to return isn’t automatic. If you had coworkers who enabled or encouraged substance abuse, or if the job doesn’t provide routine or stability, it may be time to look for another job. Consider the following types of workplaces:
- Stable hours and expectations: A job with stable hours and expectations provides structure and routine, which are essential to people in recovery. A workplace with changing deadlines and odd schedules could be a source of uncertainty and stress.
- Healthy environment: This refers to both physical environment and coworkers. Both should be conducive to your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
- Opportunities for growth: Setting goals is key to healthy recovery, so a position where you can learn more skills and/or gain promotion will help not only your career but also your sobriety.
If you decide to look for a new job, here are some things to expect:
- Gaps in employment history: Employers are not allowed to ask you about prior substance abuse. But in some cases, you may find it necessary to be upfront with this information either during an interview or after getting the job. Weigh the pros and cons for every new situation, and be prepared to explain employment gaps on your resume during which you sought treatment.
- Finding work in a different field: After rehab, you may find that your goals, interests, skills, and passions lie in a different field. Be ready to pivot to a new industry and/or take additional training.
- References: If your addiction has left you without references, you can rebuild your professional network by interning or volunteering.
Know What to Say, to Whom
When you return to work, you get to decide how much detail about your recovery you want to divulge, and to whom. If you’re returning to a previous job, your coworkers may already know some details. Still, practice what you’re going to say. Maybe you’re more comfortable with a vague explanation, like “I had some medical issues to work through.” Or maybe you prefer to share the full truth with some but not all your colleagues. Don’t feel pressured to disclose more than necessary.
Perhaps you’re also worried about the social stigma surrounding addiction and rehab. Prepare for negative reactions, but also try to celebrate positive reactions or improvements in work relationships due to your sobriety.
Know Your Rights
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with addiction history from discrimination. If you think coworkers are discriminating against you because of your addiction or rehab history, first reach out to your company’s HR department to see if the conflict can be resolved directly. If not, file a complaint or talk to an ADA specialist.
Additionally, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects employee time off when taken for ongoing or inpatient treatment. Your employer cannot terminate or alter your employment because of these absences. However, FMLA does not protect time off due to substance abuse. Read up on the benefits and limitations of both the ADA and FMLA so you know what applies to your unique situation.
Avoid Relapse Triggers
Congrats on landing (or returning to) your first job after rehab! This is a proud moment. At the same time, recognize that the workplace may carry some relapse triggers, on occasion if not daily. These can be “normal” workplace occurrences to most people, but those in recovery need to stay vigilant. Some examples:
- company lunches or dinners involving alcohol
- coworkers who drink or use recreationally
- stress (from work and/or personal life)
- celebrations, as they can either give you the confidence to handle “just one drink” or make you want to enhance the natural high with substances
To combat these triggers, establish new rules and boundaries for yourself. Abstain from dinners at bars and take coworkers to lunch at a cafe instead. Accept that you’ll have to say no to certain social activities involving substances, and find new ways to be social. Surround yourself with people who support your sobriety, and learn how to manage stress in a healthy way. Talk regularly to a counselor or close confidante about your emotions in and out of work.
- If you have a criminal record, find support on National H.I.R.E. Network.
- The National Skills Coalition and U.S. Department of Labor provide inclusive support for job seekers with a history of addiction.
As you transition back to work and life, continue getting outpatient treatment or counseling through your rehab center. At Avenues Recovery, our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides intensive clinical therapy and counseling to strengthen recovery. Alternatively, our Outpatient Program (OP) provides weekly support through individual and/or group therapy. Both are flexible to clients’ schedules and needs.
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