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What to Do When an Employee Enters Long-Term Rehab

As the supervisor of an employee who enters treatment, it's important to meet this decision with compassion and support. It's also natural to have a host of conflicting feelings about your employee entering rehab. Understanding how to constructively address these concerns is essential to supporting your employee during treatment and protecting his or her privacy.
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Image source: PhotoDune

For successful business professionals, entering a long-term rehab program is an incredibly difficult and emotional decision for many reasons. There's a deep fear of shame and failure, worries about how rehab may affect loved ones, and, of course, genuine concern for how rehab may impact a successful, thriving career. While these are certainly legitimate concerns, the truth is that entering rehab is typically the best decision an individual will ever make. Acknowledging addiction and being open about the need for help is an incredibly courageous move.

As the supervisor of an employee who enters treatment, it's important to meet this decision with compassion and support. It's also natural to have a host of conflicting feelings about your employee entering rehab. Understanding how to constructively address these concerns -- and questions from curious coworkers -- is essential to supporting your employee during treatment and protecting his or her privacy, in accordance with workplace regulation.

While I'm familiar with the challenges of addiction treatment in the workplace, I'm by no means an expert. I reached out to the team at Beachway Therapy Center, which offers long-term treatment programs for business professionals, in order to better understand how to navigate the challenges of long-term rehab for employees and their supervisors.

Understanding Your Legal Responsibilities as an Employer: ADA, FMLA, and Privacy

It's natural to experience a confluence of emotions around an employee's decision to enter treatment. As a supervisor, you may feel frustrated, angry or disappointed in how the employee has underperformed on the job or let his team down. You may also feel relief that your employee is finally getting much-needed help, or worry about how he or she will cope after rehab. You need to put these feelings aside, however, and understand your legal responsibilities in the workplace.

Yes, you can fire an employee if his or her performance has declined because of drugs or alcohol abuse. You also have the right to test you for drugs and fire you for drug use. However, once an employee announces that he or she is seeking treatment, you cannot fire them for this decision. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of life, including the workforce. This act defines what qualifies as a disability to include individuals who struggle with substance abuse, including alcoholism and drug addiction. Title I of the ADA covers equal employment opportunities and benefits for individuals with disabilities. While ADA does not protect individuals who are actively using drugs from being fired, the act does protect individuals who seek treatment from being fired.

Secondly, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also protects your employees from job loss while they are receiving treatment. FMLA allows eligible employees to take an unpaid leave of absence for up to 12 weeks within a 12-month period.

Finally, understand that your employee is entitled to privacy about his or her decision to seek treatment. Yes, break room gossip is inevitable. But if your employee does not want to make her treatment decision public, you cannot disclose any details about this treatment program. Remind your employees about the need to respect their coworker's privacy. SAMHSA is a good resource for learning more about the importance of employers maintaining confidentiality regarding any information they receive about an employee's addiction or treatment program.

Setting Up a Return-to-Work Agreement

A return-to-work agreement (RTWA) is a written document codifying an employer's expectations for an employee who has completed alcohol or drug treatment. The Beachway Therapy Center team recommends that employers set up an RTWA with any employee who leaves for treatment. An RTWA is an important accountability document that clearly outlines expectations for the employee following treatment, including any future drug testing requirements that could lead to a fireable offense. Here's a great RTWA sample to get you started from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Bottom line:

The US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends a minimum of 90 days (or longer) for most treatment programs due to the lower relapse rates associated with longer treatment programs. However, 90 days is a long time to be away from the workplace. When your employee does return, a lot may have changed: new clients, new workflow systems, and new employees. While it's not your responsibility to ensure your employee stays sober after treatment, by welcoming your employee back and taking steps to ease the reintegration process, you can help set your employee up for success. Finally, don't hold your employee's addiction struggles against him. People in recovery can be a workplace dream come true. Stay open minded and watch your employee thrive.

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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.