What Is a Recovery-Friendly Workplace?

And how can I create one at my company? Here's why and how implementing a work-life recovery program pays off

July 31, 2023
Two construction workers

In Sept. 2022, the White House announced that the Department of Labor would be launching a new resource hub for companies that want to create a work environment where employees in addiction recovery can thrive. It’s one part of the $41 billion budget the federal government has allocated for addiction treatment, recovery and anti-drug measures, and some states have already begun offering tax incentives to employers who hire workers in recovery.

The writing is on the wall: The future of the workplace is recovery-friendly. There are real benefits to making your company a place where people who have overcome addiction and mental health disorders can feel comfortable and perform at the highest levels.

But the work has only begun. The recovery-friendly (or recovery-ready) workplace and the programs that help companies achieve it — called employee/employer recovery programs, workplace-supported recovery programs or work-life recovery programs — are relatively new concepts in the mainstream conversation about modern work.

Addiction is incredibly common. Around 9% of employees in the American workforce have a substance use disorder, and another 9% are recovering from a past substance use issue. Even more Americans struggle with mental health problems in general. But for a variety of reasons, many of these people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable at many companies. If your company is hostile to recovery, these employees most likely aren’t able to do their best work.

Your employees, in recovery or not, will be happier, healthier, more motivated and more productive when you try to take their unique needs into consideration. Having a recovery-friendly workplace gives employees in recovery an environment they can count on. It’s a win-win proposition. So, how do you start?

Big Picture, What Is a Recovery-Friendly Workplace?

A recovery-friendly workplace is, at its core, just a place that treats all employees with compassion, dignity and respect. Creating one may involve giving employees in recovery some flexibility and accommodations to maintain their sobriety and well-being, or to address mental health issues.

Putting a work-life recovery program into effect might also mean showing empathy to employees who currently struggle with drug or alcohol addiction. Helping these employees get healthy will give them the chance to shine. The best outcome for you is a reinvigorated employee who’s motivated, loyal and ready to contribute their full potential.

There’s plenty of stigma surrounding addiction, recovery and mental health, and some employers balk at addressing it or even (knowingly) hiring someone with a past problem. But workers who are in recovery can bring a lot to the table. Many extremely high-functioning, intelligent and effective employees in recovery can help your company succeed and grow; these people have already developed the resilience and willpower to beat addiction. But they need to feel welcomed and supported in order to do their best work.

How Can I Create a Recovery-Friendly Workplace at My Company?

It’s not necessarily difficult to implement a recovery-friendly workplace, but you may not know where to start. A work-life recovery program, either on its own or as part of your employee assistance program, can provide you with guidelines and best practices. Having some general knowledge of addiction recovery and mental health goes a long way as well, and you can pick that up right here at All Sober.

Understanding addiction — and how it impacts a person’s life both at home and at work — gives you a great foundation for supporting your employees. Understand where they’re coming from and what they need.

Here are a few, though not all, of the possible components of a recovery-friendly workplace.

Consider Triggers and Stigma

The social environment that an employee spends time in has a considerable impact on how that person feels. When an environment is full of stigma, judgment and triggers, it is an unwelcoming and uncomfortable place for employees in recovery to be. In the workplace, this leads to distraction, stress and general negativity among employees.

However, when you create a workplace free of stigma and triggers, employees will feel like they can be a part of the company culture without jeopardizing their sobriety or having to hide that they are in recovery.

When building a recovery-friendly workplace, you might consider including training for the entire staff. This will help everyone who works for you have a solid understanding of addiction and mental health. Make it clear that disrespectful and stigmatizing behavior from your employees isn’t tolerated. The culture will shift toward more acceptance.

There are some other adjustments you can make to help employees in recovery navigate their unique triggers. For example, you might allow flexibility that helps them to manage these triggers — the option to skip a meeting over drinks, or to take a walk to relieve stress — with the understanding that their work will get done. You can provide multiple ways for employees to communicate ideas in a meeting if direct conflict is triggering for certain people.

Provide Drug-Free Spaces and Sober Options

People in recovery, especially early on, often steer clear of settings where drugs and alcohol are present. Most people who are sober generally do not spend much time in bars or with others who use alcohol or other substances excessively.

But many work events include alcohol. This can put employees in an uncomfortable position; they want to participate in company events, but they don’t want to feel awkward and certainly don’t want to put their sobriety at risk.

A recovery-friendly workplace will consider this. There are many simple and effective ways to make your parties, events and off-site meetings more inclusive. If you’re planning a summer gathering for your employees, you can provide different types of nonalcoholic beverages, perhaps separating them from the alcoholic ones. Or put the focus on sober activities so the celebration becomes about team building and bonding.

Evaluate Your Insurance Package and Addiction Treatment Accommodations

Having insurance coverage is an important benefit for employees. Many insurance policies, however, do not cover addiction or mental health treatments. Offering insurance that’s lacking on this front signals to your employees that these issues will not be taken care of with insurance, and that the company may not care.

Look into the insurance coverage you are providing. You can speak with the insurance company about expanding the package you offer, or you can change the insurance coverage that is available to your employees. Those in recovery will then have the option of using their insurance to get assistance with their ongoing recovery. This can include long-term care, sober housing, addiction counseling and more.

Employees in recovery also appreciate the flexibility to access care and support during working hours, if necessary. If an employee attends 12-step or other support group meetings, you can work with the person to make a schedule that’s compatible with that. Do the same if an employee has regular appointments with a therapist for a mental health issue. When you allow people to take care of themselves, they’ll have more bandwidth, energy and enthusiasm for their work.

Give Second Chance Hiring and Employment a Chance

When you as an employer do not hire people with mental health issues or people in recovery, it is a clear statement that they are not welcome. Remedying that is part of what second chance hiring is about.

Second chance hiring and employment used to be defined as openness to hiring people with past criminal convictions, but the meaning has expanded. It can also mean allowing new hires or current employees who are struggling with substance use or who receive positive drug test results to seek help or take other corrective actions.

Second-chance hiring and employment can be an important part of a recovery-friendly workplace and can give your company advantages as well. With this philosophy, you can employ people whose skills and experience best fit the job, even if they’re correcting past mistakes. A fulfilling job can be a significant part of getting on the right track for the employee: That person can make a living, find stability and contribute to your company’s success. Second chance policies aren’t charity. They simply allow compassion for qualified workers who may have lived imperfect lives.

More and more high-talent workers are seeking companies that reflect their values and respect their well-being. By instituting a recovery-friendly workplace, you demonstrate that you walk the walk.

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