How to talk to your employer about your addiction

By Joel Lewin Counselor, Hope Rehab Thailand – August 28, 2019

Prescription Drugs

When you are still employed, as more than 70% of substance users are, it’s easy to convince yourself that everything is under control.

Distorted thinking is a hallmark of addiction, and the irrationality can get quite extreme. As drugs took over and ruined my life, I kept telling myself, my friends, and my family, “I’m still employed. I’ve got this.” I was overdosing on heroin, but saying, “It’s not that bad, I’ve got a job.”

It turns out that having a job can be both the biggest hindrance and the biggest help to overcoming addiction.

Especially for addicts, it’s insidiously easy to ignore the warning signs that something is wrong. You might even ask yourself: “Can I even do my job without the substance?” You will almost certainly be much more effective without it, but it’s common to cling to the belief the substance is performance-enhancing.

Then there’s the fear that you’ll lose your job if you acknowledge your addiction. I remember worrying, “If I take time off work for treatment, I’ll get fired.” Or, “If I tell them about my problem, they’ll sack me.” But the truth is, you are killing yourself to keep your job. I was overdosing on heroin, but saying, “It’s not that bad, I’ve got a job.”

Working while maintaining an addiction can be an excruciating, precarious existence of fear, secrecy, and isolation.

People often don’t get help because they see the first steps as divulging their problem—whether to family, friends, or their employer—and then going to rehab. That’s a huge and daunting step, and it’s likely to cause anyone to balk. It feels more manageable to tell yourself you’re not ready for that step, and to put it off, and keep putting it off—until you reach a crisis point at work or at home and change is forced on you.

Getting help is best seen as a more incremental, step-by-step process that happens over time, rather than the one-off event of telling people about your problem and going to rehab.

Find your starting point

Taking action to tell your employer and to go to treatment should actually be one of the later stages of change, not the first step.

According to the popular Stages of Change model, developed in the 1970s and still used widely as a tool to treat substance abuse, there is a series of five phases, which culminate in action and then maintenance as the final step. The stages go like this:

  • Pre-contemplation: You are not yet acknowledging that you have a problem.
  • Contemplation: You acknowledge there may be a problem but are not sure if you are ready to change, want to change, or can change. You assess the barriers to and benefits of change.
  • Preparation: You explore the most appropriate options. You plan and prepare to make specific changes. You may start with small changes to test the water.
  • Action: This is where you implement concrete change. If the other stages have been skipped or glossed over, this may flop.
  • Maintenance: You maintain the change long term.

People often get stuck between the stages of pre-contemplation and contemplation for years because they perceive the jump into action as too overwhelming—which it can be if you don’t work your way up to it. Whether it’s binges on booze or coke or a physical dependence on opioids, addiction can trudge on for years before some kind of catastrophe forces you into action. And by then it might be too late to save your job.

If you see the action stage as the start, you might not get there until you’re pushed. Instead, try taking some smaller steps, sooner. Dip your toe in. Test the water. You don’t have to jump in feet first at the deep end.

Addiction is often progressive. It will likely get worse, even if it is very bad right now. But you don’t have to hit a so-called “rock bottom” before you can change. Don’t wait until you get a DUI, overdose, or commit a fireable offense. Don’t wait for that “sign” that it’s time to change.

In the contemplation stage, ambivalence abounds. You are likely not ready for rehab or the kind of substantial life overhaul recovery can require. Do a cost benefit analysis. Find people who will help you explore your motivation and resolve your ambivalence. Reach out. To anyone.

A good place to start is by speaking to someone who’s been there. As far as I have seen, most people in recovery themselves are happy to share their experiences and are likely to understand your desire for confidentiality. If that’s not available to you, try talking to a professional such as an addiction counselor.

Since I started writing about my addiction and recovery, a number of friends and acquaintances have been in touch, often voicing something along the lines of, “I think I might have a problem, but I don’t know if I need or want help. I don’t even know what ‘help’ means.” Sometimes, that’s all you really need to say.

Quite likely, you do have a problem if you’re asking yourself that question. Voicing that out loud to another person is the first step toward breaking that paralyzing silence and secrecy.

In the UK and Europe there are readily accessible public services for people exploring the possibility of change. That’s not so much the case in the US, but there are plenty of support groups where you can begin exploring change, such as SMART Recovery (CBT based), Refuge Recovery (Buddhism-focused) and AA/NA.

In The Rooms is a website and app that provides access to more than 100 live online recovery meetings a week. SMART has an online forum where you can start exploring whether you have a problem, and what you want to do about it. AA has 24/7 hotlines. Many people overcome their substance problems without treatment, due to getting help from resources like these.

If you wait too long, you might end up losing the job you’ve been trying to protect. Or you might be pushed into the action stage before you are ready, and waste your chance at qualifying for treatment, whether that’s provided by the government, your insurance, your employer, or self-funded.

How to have the talk

Once you’ve already explored the process of getting help with others who have been there, telling your employer becomes less overwhelming. You’ve had some practice, and the idea of talking about your issues and asking for help gets more comfortable.

Often your substance use has not been as secret as you imagined. Your colleagues, supervisor, or boss might have been wondering for some time what’s been going on, but felt reluctant or too uncomfortable to broach the subject. It might even be a relief for them when you come forward. HR can work with honesty, but silence enables them to assume the worst and act accordingly.

Before you have a conversation, know your rights. Explore your company’s drug, alcohol, and health care policies. You may need to enlist the guidance of a professional to help you with this.

In the US, your employer can discipline or fire you if your alcohol or drug use impairs your ability to do your job. However, employers cannot discipline or fire you simply because you tell them you have a substance problem. In most cases, the employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations, including time off for treatment, if you seek help.

Although those legal protections do not apply to people actively using illegal drugs, in practice, many employers will still offer you support. There are a few things on your side here, such as the fact that in a tight labor market, hiring can be costly. Employers would generally rather keep employees, having already invested in hiring and training them. Your employer may even make additional resources available to you, such as counseling through an employee assistance program.

Be up front and open. Covering things up can come back to bite you. Conversely, if you find yourself deceiving those around you and working to cover up your addiction, the fear of an employer finding out the truth can be detrimental to your recovery.

Being honest with your employer can provide immense relief—for all parties involved—that helps you focus on recovery. Once you take steps to overcome your addiction, that is the most important job at hand. It requires all the focus, energy, resolve, and skills that you have.

And finally, hold your head high. You have nothing to be ashamed of.