When you’re ready to get help for a substance use disorder, navigating the treatment process can be daunting. While there are many things to consider prior to entering a treatment program, employment is a major concern for many.  The risks of job termination, fear of discrimination or stigma all prevent individuals from entering treatment while employed. 

Today, there are federal laws and workplace policies that protect individuals who want to seek recovery from a substance use disorder.  Understanding your rights and having a plan can help you retain your employment while beginning the path to recovery.

Know Your Rights

There are several federal laws in place that protect your right to work while in recovery.  The most well-known of these is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)(opens in a new tab).  FMLA provides qualified employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for serious health conditions, including substance use disorders.  Additionally, FMLA requires an employer to maintain the employees’ health benefits throughout their leave. 

To qualify, an employee must:

Work for their employer for a minimum of 12 months and have logged at least 1,250 hours over the 12 month period
Work at a location where the company employs at least 50 people within a 75 mile radius, is a public agency, or is an elementary or secondary school
If you are a qualified employee, the process for accessing an FMLA leave of absence includes:

  • Provide notice to your employer of your upcoming leave as soon as you’re able
  • Receive eligibility notification from employer, including your rights, responsibilities, and necessary medical certification documents
  • Return medical certification documents to employer within 15 days, signed by your healthcare provider.
  • When you are able to return to work, your employer must return you to an identical, or nearly identical, position  

In addition to the Family and Medical Leave Act, individuals recovering from a substance use disorder are also protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA)(opens in a new tab) employers are prohibited from hiring, firing, or discriminating against any employee based on their disability, which includes mental health and substance use disorders.  These protections ensure individuals living with a disability are provided with reasonable accommodations and safeguard employees against discrimination within the workplace related to their substance use disorder.

Employees are further protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA(opens in a new tab). HIPPA protects your confidentiality and allows you to maintain control over who has access to your health records. This means that your employer will not be able to access sensitive or confidential information during your treatment process. 

While there are many safeguards in place which will help you to seek treatment while protecting your job, it is important to remember your employer has a right to create a drug-free workplace.  Even though you cannot be terminated for taking FMLA or for having a disability, you may still face termination for failing a drug screen, coming to work under the influence, or other behavioral issues related to your substance use, such as attendance.   If you are unsure of your employer’s policies, request a copy from your supervisor or HR representative prior to speaking with your employer about a leave for treatment. 

Research your Benefits

Many employers offer a variety of benefits that can assist you in entering treatment while employed. Talk to your human resources representative to see which of these benefits are available to you.   Some frequently available resources include:

  • Employee Assistance Programs: An Employee Assistance Program (EAP)(opens in a new tab) provides employees with a variety of services to assist them in managing occupational and personal issues. These services include counseling sessions, assessments, and referrals to treatment.  EAP’s provide most of their services free of charge to the employee and can be a great resource in finding a qualified provider.  
  • Health Insurance: Many insurance companies provide mental health/substance use benefits. If you have a health insurance policy through your employer, reach out to them to determine your out-of-pocket costs. They can also help you locate providers in your area that are in-network with your insurance. 
  • Short-Term Disability: Short-Term Disability insurance provides income replacement while you are unable to work for an extended period of time due to an approved illness, including mental health and substance use disorders. While this benefit is not universal, many employers offer short-term disability.  Accessing these benefits will help relieve some of the financial strain of taking time off of work to enter treatment.  

Notifying your Employer

Depending on your individual workplace, you may be having the conversation with your direct supervisor or a human resources representative.  Who you will speak with will also depend on your relationship with the company and your supervisory team.  A conversation regarding your leave should happen sooner rather than later, especially if your performance has started to suffer as a result of your substance use. 

When you approach your employer, be sure to have a clear plan ready to discuss.  This should include when your leave will begin, how long you anticipate being off, and any other accommodations you may need to cover your absence.  Be sure to ask your employer about the return to work process and make note of any requirements you will need to take care of. 

When it comes to sharing the reason for your leave, you may be fearful of judgement or discrimination from your employer.  You have no legal obligation to disclose what medical condition you are seeking leave for.  However, if you have been experiencing performance issues because of your use, disclosing that you are entering treatment may be helpful.  If you are unsure about disclosing the reason for your leave, reach out to your EAP or your chosen treatment provider for further guidance. 

Get Help Now

Assistance is available for people who are ready to recover from a substance use disorder, entering treatment while employed.  While there may be some professional risk involved in entering treatment, the consequences of not receiving help could be much more severe.  Remember that it takes courage to seek treatment for a substance use disorder, and Greenbriar Treatment Center’s dedicated team is committed to helping you along the way.  We offer specialized support to individuals entering treatment while employed and can answer any questions you may have about taking time off of work to enter treatment. Contact us today to discuss which treatment options may work best for you.