One of the most common fears people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction have is how to seek treatment without putting their job at risk. While this issue does need to be handled carefully, evidence suggests that seeking treatment is much more likely to provide a boost to your career as opposed to simply ignoring your substance abuse problem. When you’re sober, you’re free to focus your attention on achieving your career goals instead of dealing with the effects of your addiction.
Sharing Sensitive Information with Your Employer and Coworkers
How you choose to handle explaining the reason behind your absence is entirely up to you. Some people decide to be totally forthcoming about their need to seek treatment, while others keep the information strictly on a need-to-know basis.
If you work in a close-knit environment, your supervisor and coworkers may already suspect that you need help based on their observations. If so, they’re likely to be supportive of the efforts you’re making in taking control of your addiction. Even though it can be scary to admit vulnerability, being upfront about your need to seek treatment can be seen as a sign of your integrity and honesty, as well as your commitment to your employer. As an added benefit, your supervisor may be able to connect you to additional resources through the company’s Employee Assistance Program.
Seeking addiction treatment is nothing to be ashamed of, but keeping your decision confidential might be in your best interests if you don’t feel your colleagues will be supportive. If you’re worried about protecting your privacy, you can work with the human resources department directly to minimize the number of people who know the reason for your absence. A doctor’s note explaining the reason for your absence may be required, but your doctor is ethically bound to protect your privacy. All he or she needs to do is certify that your need for time off work is due to a legitimate medical condition. Others who don’t need to know this confidential information can simply be told you’re taking a leave of absence to attend to some personal matters or that you’re using accrued vacation time.
Legal Protections for People Seeking Addiction Treatment
While absence from work due to substance use doesn’t qualify for legal protection, seeking addiction treatment is protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA). Taking leave under FMLA allows you to request an unpaid leave of absence of up to 12 weeks in a 12-month period. Employers are not allowed to terminate a worker simply because he or she has requested FMLA leave for a qualifying condition.
There are specific requirements you must meet to take advantage of FMLA. You must have worked for your employer for at least 12 months, have worked for a minimum of 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and be employed at a location with at least 50 workers employed by the company within 75 miles.
If your employer violates the FMLA, you can seek legal action. A settlement may include compensation for lost wages, loss of future earning potential, and any applicable liquidated damages.
Alcohol and drug addiction are also considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Current substance abuse isn’t protected, but employers must provide reasonable accommodations if you’re sober and in a recognized treatment program. This often includes flexible scheduling, with options such as leaving early, working from home, being allowed to refuse overtime to attend counselling or support group meetings, and taking an unpaid leave of absence.
If your employer violates the ADA, you can file a federal suit. You won’t receive monetary damages, but your employer can be ordered to make the necessary accommodations to be in compliance.
Concerns Related to Performance Issues
If your employer has a drug and alcohol use policy in place that was clearly communicated to all employees and is consistently enforced, you can be terminated if there is proof you violated the policy. Your employer can also terminate your position for performance issues related to your drug and alcohol use. This might include:
- Being late to work
- Missing too much work
- Inappropriate behavior towards coworkers or clients
- Ignoring safety precautions or causing accidents
- Mishandling sensitive information
- Theft or misuse of company resources
If there is concrete proof of performance issues, it legally doesn’t matter what the cause of the issue is. For this reason, it’s in your best interests to seek addiction treatment before your drug or alcohol misuse starts affecting your job performance.
By Dana Hinders