I’m in Recovery and Ready To Work. What Do I Need To Know?

A job can bring serious benefits to your recovery, even beyond the financial ones. But it can also test you. If you understand a few things going in — or going back — you'll be golden

May 8, 2023
Woman typing on laptop keyboard

You’ve completed addiction treatment, you’ve worked on old relationships and formed new ones in recovery, you’re eating well and sleeping better, and your new sober reality is starting to feel like, well, your life. Now, you’re ready to get back to work.

We always encourage people to find purpose in life in recovery. And look, plenty of people, in recovery or not, will readily tell you they don’t “find purpose” on the job. But many do. If you’ve been sidelined by addiction, work is a way of getting back into the rhythms and routines of a healthy life. A job can bring structure; it can boost your confidence and sense of independence.

Whether you’re diving into the job search or returning to your existing workplace, there will be some things to keep in mind now that you’re in recovery. People in your recovery circles and support groups can give you pointers on the workplace-related resources available to you, as well as tips on how to make your return to the workforce triumphant. Some may even know folks who are hiring. But for more on the basics, read on.

Know Your Rights: Getting a Job, Keeping a Job and Putting Your Recovery First

All employees and job candidates have some protections against discrimination or unfair treatment in the U.S. Not that you should expect such things! But we bring it up because …

Although you are not required to disclose your medical history to most potential employers, you can choose to tell them about accommodations you may need to maintain recovery.

As the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against people in recovery from substance use disorders (SUDs) who have already sought treatment for their addictions. Per SAMHSA and the ADA:

  • Employers cannot fire, refuse to hire or refuse to promote someone simply because they have a history of substance use.
  • Employers also cannot fire, refuse to hire or refuse to promote employees because they are enrolled in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.

So, yes, you can tell an employer or potential employer about your needs — more about this in a minute. Reasonable accommodations for your recovery might include time off to attend recovery support group meetings, therapy and medical check-ins. You can work full-time and attend outpatient treatment and aftercare programs too.

An employer that balks at such accommodations probably won’t be a good fit. Your recovery comes first.

Feeling Ready To Work, but Need Additional Support?

Luckily, many employers today do offer mental health and addiction recovery support services or benefits you can use to keep your recovery on track.

Some examples to look for:

  • Scheduling options that allow you to attend treatment, therapy, support programs and other recovery commitments
  • Low-cost mental health support in the form of in-person or online therapy or counseling sessions. This may be part of an employee assistance program (EAP) or a benefit of an employer’s mental health insurance plan.
  • Reasonable accommodations within the workplace to reduce exposure to potential triggers
  • An office that meets the criteria for a recovery-friendly or recovery-ready workplace

Talk to someone in your employer’s or potential employer’s human resources department to learn more about the company’s policies that could support your recovery.

What Questions Should I Ask My Employer? (Or What Should I Ask When Weighing an Offer?)

You’re not obligated to tell your employer or prospective employer any more than you feel comfortable sharing about your situation. The law is one thing, but in the real world, unfortunately, many people view addiction and recovery through the lens of stigma, and some of those people make hiring decisions.

But giving an employer some context about what you feel would benefit your sobriety may help you. It could also be helpful to ask questions about potential triggers or other challenges you may face when returning to the workforce. When to bring this up in the process of negotiating a job application or picking up where you left off at your old job is something your peers in recovery may be able to guide you through.

Before returning to work, you might want to ask your employer or a representative from human resources about the following:

  • Their flexibility on hours and time off for appointments. Can you meet your recovery goals and obligations in this position?
  • The company insurance plan’s coverage of therapy, counseling and SUD treatment
  • The company policy on “second chance hiring” and legal issues related to past substance use
  • Details about their drug policies. Are they a drug-free workplace?

Knowing your employer’s stance on addiction, treatment and recovery in advance will prepare you to face any challenges in the workplace. Most workplaces provide some details about drug policies, recovery services and benefits in their employee handbook. But you may learn more from a private discussion with an HR representative.

All these questions basically come back to one big one: How will this job help you succeed in achieving and maintaining long-term sobriety — or not?

Ready To Work but Worried About Coworker Questions?

Unfortunately, you don’t always get to decide who knows about your situation. However, you do get to choose how you react to any questions or statements your coworkers or supervisors make about your SUD and recovery.

People sometimes get curious when they hear someone they work with is in recovery. You may encounter intrusive, tactless and potentially illegal questions from coworkers, including:

  • “What substance did you take?”
  • “How long have you been sober?”
  • “What’s it like to be in recovery?”
  • “How can I help you maintain sobriety?”

Obviously, some of these are well-intentioned. And some people in recovery feel entirely comfortable being open about their past substance use and current sobriety. Ultimately, you get to choose what you share and with whom.

If people at your workplace ask probing and intrusive questions about your substance use or recovery, you are within your rights to report that to a human resource representative, if you think that will help. You deserve to feel respected, safe and comfortable in the workplace.

Combating Stigmas Related to Recovery — At Work

Stigmatizing beliefs about the competency of people with mental illness compromise these individuals’ financial autonomy, restrict opportunities and may lead to coercive treatment,” write researchers at the National Academy of Sciences. Many stigmas surrounding substance use and treatment exist. You may be familiar with some:

  • Substance use is a sign of moral deficiency.
  • Only “lazy” or “bad” people use substances.
  • Substance use disorders and issues are untreatable.

Stigmas cause people who hold these misguided views to look at someone in recovery and see a stereotype instead of a person. You can combat stigmas by educating the people around you about the realities of addiction and recovery.

It is literally not your job to do that! But — if you encounter stigma, you can use these moments to empower yourself and potentially change the other person’s perspective. If you choose to share your experiences, it puts a human face to addiction recovery.

Handling Triggers in the Workplace Like a Pro

Most people spend a fair amount of their time at work, and, if only for that reason, you may encounter unexpected triggers there that cause intrusive thoughts, cravings or compulsions. Consider talking with your therapist and making plans for coping with specific triggers related to your ongoing recovery.

Some common on-the-job triggers include:

You can reduce stress and the risk of relapse or recurrence of use by ensuring you’re fully prepared for your return to work, before you actually do so. We can point you toward some resources and tools for coping with triggers you may encounter in the workplace.

Financial stability is a strong enough incentive to return to work in recovery, but it’s not a cliche to take pride in your work as well. Like any aspect of recovery, a job comes with challenges, but with the right support, you can overcome these.

And once you do, you’ll likely find it feels mighty nice to be back in the saddle again.

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