Substance use in the workplace is nothing new. According to a 2013 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association study, of the 22.4 million illicit drug users ages 18 and older, nearly 70% were employed either full- or part-time.
Welcoming back a co-worker who has taken a leave of absence for mental health or substance use reasons can be awkward because it’s difficult to know how to act. Is it OK to ask about it? Should I tell them I hope they’re feeling better? Do I just ignore it altogether and act like they never left?
The truth is, none of these options feels like the right one. Still, there are a few things you can do to tactfully show your compassion.
1. Understand your co-worker’s perspective.
The transition out of treatment and back into the workforce can be daunting. Your co-worker may be feeling ashamed or embarrassed. Just going back to work is an act of courage.
Depending on their personality or your relationship, they may want to get everything out in the open on day one, or they may feel more comfortable keeping quiet. Be open to conversation, but let their behavior dictate your interactions.
If you want to show your support, saying something like, “I’m not really sure how to say it, but I want you to know I’m here for you,” acknowledges your, but lets your co-worker know that if they ever want to talk, you’re there to listen in a no-pressure way.
2. Remember your role.
While you should remain open and receptive to your co-worker, it’s important to understand that it’s not your job to serve as their therapist, sponsor or support system. Upon your co-worker’s return to the workplace, let them dictate how you proceed.
3. Work with their resources.
If you are in a management role and oversee an employee who is returning from treatment, you may be in regular contact with his or her addiction counselor or case manager. “Back to work” or “return to work” plans are commonly used to help employees transition back into work.
The plan may include regular drug testing, familiarizing yourself with their relapse prevention plan or participating in aftercare programming.
4. Watch out for workaholism.
Sometimes people substitute one addiction for another. Substance use can evolve into workaholism, and your co-worker may use their job to avoid dealing with painful feelings or situations. Although you might appreciate their newfound work ethic, it’s important that they make time to attend meetings, participate in sober activities, and spend time with friends and family.
5. Don’t bring yourself into it.
You may feel like sharing stories about your personal experiences with addiction and recovery might help you relate to your co-worker. The sentiment may be there, but it’s trite.
Saying things like “I know you’ll be OK,” and “The same thing happened to my sister, and she turned out fine,” are negative and unhelpful. Your co-worker’s experience is uniquely personal, and using a hackneyed response or someone else’s experience as a comparison makes you appear out of touch. It’s best to leave yourself out of the discussion.
Although the conversation surrounding mental health and addiction has begun to shift, there is still a stigma. While you might be curious or concerned about how your co-worker is doing, it’s important to be respectful of their privacy.
If you or a co-worker is struggling with workplace substance use or burnout, help is available and healing is possible. Contact Guardian Recovery Network at 877.831.2533 for more information about our continuum of services designed to meet the needs of working professionals.