Explaining your addiction and your need for treatment to your boss can be a gut-wrenching step. Probably your biggest worry is along the lines of, “Will I still have a job if I tell my boss what’s going on?”
The good news is that you have the right to seek treatment without endangering your job to fix your medical issue, and substance abuse is a medical issue protected by both the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
And like other medical issues, substance abuse bleeds over from your personal life to your professional life. Chances are your boss and co-workers know something is going wrong, and this conversation is a chance to let your boss know that you are working to set it right.
Warning signs at work
The best way to look at this conversation is as a way to honestly confront your addiction. Secrecy and lies have a way of adding up, and no matter how hard you’ve tried to hide your addiction at work, your boss may have noticed some of the warning signs.
- Negligent or careless of personal appearance
- Erratic work performance
- Mood swings
- Lowered productivity
- Fighting or quarreling with co-workers
- Arriving late, absent more frequently than usual, taking longer breaks
If they have, or even if they have not, then your boss is probably going to be happy that you are taking a step in the right direction. By explaining your decision to go to treatment as a way of taking care of yourself so you can become a better person and employee, you can frame the discussion in a way that protects your job and benefits you in the long run.
Preparing for the conversation
The first thing you should do when getting ready to tell your boss about your addiction and need for treatment is to learn as much as you can about your rights, your company’s drug and alcohol policy, and addiction and treatment options in general. The more knowledge you bring into the conversation, the more power you will have to explain and elaborate on any questions the boss or HR manager may have.
Next, you should have an outline ready for your recovery plan, timeline, and method of treatment. Your company may even have referrals available for high-quality treatment centers that their employees have worked with in the past. By being upfront and clear about your needs, your boss will know how long they can expect you to be gone and make their own plans accordingly.
Finally, it’s important to remember that oftentimes your worry about the conversation will end up being worse than the conversation itself. As with any other medical issue, you have the right to expect it to stay confidential and on a need-to-know basis. So if you are worried about word spreading across the office you can request that the exact reason for your leave of absence stay with HR or management.
Know your rights
You will find that there are many protections backing you as you start this conversation. Federal laws and company policies may be a major asset as you start this conversation. There are a few things you should pay attention to:
- Americans with Disabilities Act: This law prevents employers from discriminating against employees who are suffering from a medical condition, including substance abuse.
- Family and Medical Leave Act: FMLA leave allows qualified individuals (including people going into recovery or treatment centers) to receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12 month period.
- Employee Assistance Programs: Some companies offer programs to help employees find treatment and medical care through recommended counselors or referrals to treatment centers
- Health Insurance Policies: Many company policies and most policies through the Affordable Care Act cover mental health and substance abuse claims
Your boss or HR professional will probably know a lot about these options but you should read up on your rights too. That way, if they are questioned, you will be able to point them out and protect your job as much as possible.
Check Company Policies
On the flip side, many companies do have drug and alcohol policies in place both during work hours and sometimes outside of work hours. Make sure you familiarize yourself with those rules in your employee handbook or equivalent if you have not done so already so you know in advance what may come up in the conversation.
When are you covered by the ADA?
The ADA is part of the basis for FMLA leave protection, and it specifically protects drug users who undergo or have undergone treatment. Qualified individuals can then use the FMLA benefits to protect their jobs while they are in a treatment center. Qualified means that the person has:
- been successfully rehabilitated and no longer engaged in the illegal use of drugs
- or is currently participating in a rehabilitation program and no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs
Since seeking treatment is important to healing substance abuse issues, it is protected and you should feel confident that you are doing the right thing. Conveying that message to your boss is important and something they should be able to respect.
Even if telling your boss about your addiction and then admitting that you are seeking treatment feels like a terrifying step to take, it’s not one that you should avoid doing either. An honest and upfront conversation may bring suspicions or concerns out in the open and show them that you are serious about changing your life for the better. Legally, your request can stay confidential at work, and your job will still be there for you when you come back.
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