Returning to work after substance abuse or mental health treatment is a necessary step that most people in recovery will have to take to be able to support themselves and lead an independent life. For some, getting a job or going back to work is a goal that signals major progress in their recovery—it’s an essential step towards freedom and self-sufficiency.
But going back to work can be a very complicated process for people in recovery, whether you are returning to a past position with people who know you or starting a job in a new work environment. Keep reading to learn how to cope with this transition and avoid the triggers that threaten your recovery.
Do You Have to Tell Your Employer You’re in Recovery?
If you accept a job with an employer who doesn’t know about your addiction or mental health issues, you may not have to disclose your history. If you are doing well in recovery and your job doesn’t interfere with your success in any way, you probably do not need to reveal it.
But if you have to explain a gap in your work experience or an extended absence from work—or if you anticipate needing your employer’s help to stay sober—being honest about your recovery may be essential. Telling a potential employer the truth sets the right tone from the start.
It also means that if you end up needing help to continue your recovery, such as time off to attend meetings or permission to pass on company events that revolve around drinking, you will be in a much better position to ask.
If you do choose to disclose your recovery, following these guidelines can help:
Make it very clear that the addiction is in your past, that you are moving forward successfully, and that you are committed to staying sober.
Focus on the positive, including your success in recovery. The skills that have brought you this far—your commitment, perseverance, and fortitude—can help you overcome challenges in the workplace as well.
If you will have triggers at work, tell your employer what they are and ask for help. For example, if you have mental health issues and your workload may cause extreme stress, ask for more time to complete projects or for work that is less deadline-intensive. If you have clients who drink during business events and will expect you to do the same, ask if someone else can go in your place. There are many other ways that you can contribute at work while avoiding your triggers.
Don’t disclose too many details about your past. They don’t need to know the whole story. Simply say, “I was addicted to alcohol, but I have been in recovery for six months and I am committed to life-long sobriety” or “I completed treatment for depression, but I am taking medication and I am excited about what the future holds for me.” Make it clear that you’re dedicated to staying sober and/or healthy for the long term.
Don’t speak poorly of yourself or sell yourself short. Regardless of your past, you still have much to offer. For example, don’t say “I was a total mess back then” or “I just can’t handle stress.” Instead, say with conviction that you have addressed the issues that led to your problems, you learned how to manage them, and you know when to ask for help.
An open, honest discussion with a potential employer about your recovery can be a very good thing if it’s done correctly. Telling your employer can help you stay sober and cope with any triggers in the workplace, which will ultimately help you stay on track with your recovery.
Going Back to a Former Job
It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious or nervous about returning to work after completing treatment, especially if your co-workers know about your past. No one wants to walk into their workplace to whispers, strange glances, or awkward conversations.
But if you made it through treatment, know that you can make it through this as well. You have no reason to be ashamed—go to work with your head held high.
Yes, people will likely have a lot of questions. They may have genuine concern about how you are doing, or they may just ask questions out of curiosity.
Just know that you are not required to explain your situation to your co-workers—the choice is completely up to you. You may want to talk with your counselor, support group, trusted friends, or loved ones before you go back, so you can plan what you will say in advance. The goal is for you to feel as comfortable and supported as possible.
You may be a little rusty with your job skills and may have to deal with changes that took place while you were gone (new managers, new policies, etc.). Give yourself time to adjust to these changes and get yourself back up to speed.
It’s likely that you are not the only person at your workplace who has dealt with personal challenges, mental health issues, or addiction. You would probably be surprised to know how many of your co-workers are dealing with the same issues, whether it’s themselves or someone they love. You likely have many silent allies who are rooting for you to do well. If you can develop relationships with some of these co-workers and add them to your support network, even better.