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Treatment and the Workplace: How to Communicate About Addiction on the Job

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By Carly Benson

From the outside looking in, we may not consider the substance abuse epidemic in our country to be an employer’s issue. However, after taking a much closer look, it actually affects employers significantly. One of the most common issues someone battling an addiction faces is how the treatment process will impact their work.

Office workersAccording to Psychology Today, roughly 20 million workers across the United States report alcohol-related impairment at work at least once in the past year.1 Furthermore, more than one in 25 Americans tested positive for illicit drugs in workplace drug screens.

This analysis, testing over 10 million working class people, was performed by Quest Diagnostics, the world’s leading provider of diagnostic information services and testing for employers, in May 2016.2  Sadly, they concluded that drug use in the American workforce has reached its highest rate in 12 years.

Most of those who have a substance use disorder maintain their employment while quietly suffering through it. Many people can get to work each day with traces or even full doses of alcohol or drugs in their systems and still perform their job. People who are dealing with an addiction of any kind are often afraid to tell anyone for fear of shame, judgment or job loss.

Why Substance Abuse Matters to Employers

One of the first things to consider prior to speaking with your employer about your addiction or treatment needs is how your workplace is currently or eventually will be affected. Alcohol and other drug use can lead to:

  • Loss of productivity
  • Decrease in bottom-line revenue
  • Attendance issues
  • Performance issues such as decreased motivation and engagement
  • Workplace injuries
  • Lower morale and changes in overall company culture

For someone who is struggling with substance abuse, it may be hard to see past the personal side of the equation, such as workplace ramifications. However, it’s good to be mindful of how it affects everyone, including your employer and coworkers.

As it relates to a place of employment, employees should understand when and how much to tell bosses and coworkers when it comes to addiction, treatment and returning to the workplace.

Know Your Options

Prior to speaking with your employer, it is wise to check the company policies around alcohol and drug use, which may be outlined in their healthcare policies.

Larger corporations have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) which offer counseling, confidential assessments and referral resources to encourage treatment and recovery from addiction. However, not all organizations offer this level of support, so it’s best to do your homework beforehand.

Some companies also offer workplace and financial assistance to employees because they see the value in retaining a good employee, as well as the cost required to replace them. So even if it’s not explicitly stated, don’t assume help from your place of employment is unavailable.

Understanding the Legalities of Addiction Treatment in the Workplace

A lot of people secretly live with an addiction because they are afraid they will lose their job. There are actually legal sanctions around this topic, as it has grown more prevalent in our society.

Based on the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees are allotted up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year.3 FMLA was created in an effort to assist employees with balancing work and life responsibilities by offering the ability to take unpaid leave to handle certain medical situations. This act allows employees to take time off for recovery and return knowing they still have a job.

Why Employers Should Support Their Employees in Finding Addiction Treatment

It can be mutually beneficial for a workplace to support their employees in finding treatment. Extending full support, employers can choose to put agreements in place with an employee which will ultimately encourage him or her to stay motivated, finish treatment and follow through with their recovery. Some employers will have requirements that an employee must meet such as remaining sober for a certain amount of time, which can provide additional accountability.

With all that said, firing someone without giving them the chance or option to go through treatment can have legal repercussions. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, substance abuse is regarded as a disability and therefore must be treated as such.Most employers will allow an employee to take time off for treatment to safeguard any discrimination disputes that could arise if they don’t.

How to Communicate About Addiction on the Job

Now that we have reviewed each of the perspectives, the most important part is having the conversation. As you make moves to speak with your supervisor or human resources department, here are some guidelines to help you with your communication:

  • Honesty is the best policy. Be upfront and open. This will show you are serious about seeking help.
  • Ask for their support and confidentiality.
  • Discuss your plans and length of treatment so your employer is fully aware of the time commitment.
  • Make sure your job functions are covered in your absence and have a plan in place to make the transition as seamless as possible.

At the end of the day, finding help for your substance abuse is admirable and necessary. Many people with addiction problems don’t seek help, which only prolongs their suffering. Taking a leave from a job to work on yourself is the right thing to do in this situation so you can get to a place of recovery and clarity, which will only make you a better person and employee in the long run.


1 Kelly, John F. “Addiction In The Workplace 101: What You Need to Know.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 14 June 2017. Accessed 10 August 2017.

2 Quest Diagnostics. “Increases in Illicit Drugs, Including Cocaine, Drive Workforce Drug Positivity to Highest Rate in 12 Years”, Quest Diagnostics, May 2016. Accessed 10 August 2017.

3 Jordan, DeAnna. “Should You Tell Your Employer You Have A Substance Abuse Problem?”, U.S. News & World Report, January 2017. Accessed 10 August 2017.

4 Thompson, Van. “How Does Drug Treatment for an Employee Help the Employer?”, Chron. October 2016. Accessed 10 August 2017.

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