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Workplaces can be supportive of
recovering coworkers

We often hear alcoholism and other drug addiction called a "family disease," because
addiction impacts not just addicts but all those who love them. But addiction is also a workplace disease. According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over three-fourths (76.8 percent) of addicted adults in this country are employed. Fortunately, as documented in a Journal of the American Medical Association article (October 2000), treatments for substance use disorders are as effective as treatments for other chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes.

Thinking of the disease of addiction in terms of other life-threatening diseases might help employers and coworkers better support a recovering workmate who has undergone treatment for a substance abuse disorder.

Be as compassionate toward a recovering worker as you would be with anyone who suffers from a major illness. As with any chronic illness, it takes time to regain mental and emotional balance, endurance, and the ability to concentrate. It is common for people in early recovery to feel guilt and shame about others having to carry their load, and about their behaviors prior to getting treatment.

Kulhanek encourages employers and coworkers to learn about Twelve Step recovery by attending an open Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting, by reading AA or NA materials, or by talking with someone at work who is familiar with recovery from alcoholism. Twelve Step participants view addiction as a lifelong disease and see the Twelve Steps as their program for living with the disease. The Twelve Steps also provide a yardstick to measure individual growth. When people whose lives have been affected by their own or by another's addiction work the Twelve Steps, they can better sort out the things that they have no control over from the things for which they are responsible.

That newfound sense of responsibility and the other tools for healthy living that recovering people acquire usually make them highly motivated and conscientious workers who want to do their best. If employers and coworkers exhibit confidence in the recovering worker, the worker is more likely to gain confidence in themselves, making their "re-entry" less awkward.

"Coworkers can break the ice with warm welcomes, but give the recovering worker time to re-acclimate to people and the workplace before asking questions," said Kulhanek. "Allow the worker to decide when and how much to share. Let the worker tell his or her own story and don't jump to conclusions or gossip. Most importantly, be active listeners. Don't give advice or start condemning the person. Do not treat the individual as a child who needs to be taken care of or enable the person to remain in a state of dependency. It is one thing to ask for help, but the worker must be responsible for his or her job, just as he or she must be responsible for one's own recovery program."

Including a recovering worker in daily activities such as lunch and meetings will help them get back into the normal flow of the day, said Kulhanek. Employers and coworkers needn't change plans to avoid situations where alcohol is served in order to help the worker stay sober, but they should offer recovering workers flexibility so they can avoid or leave a high-risk situation if they need to, he said. "Of course, never pressure a recovering worker to drink or take drugs because you think they can handle it now that they've been through treatment. They can't."

Employers are required to maintain confidentiality on all employees' records. They should also let recovering employees decide what and how much they want to divulge to coworkers and provide as much flexibility as possible so recovering employees can attend necessary counseling sessions. It is important, however, to be respectful of other employees who might feel resentful if they feel they are expected to do more so a recovering coworker can have time off work. Companies may want to consider adopting a "flex-time" policy that adjusts but does not reduce the hours worked in such situations.

Supporting employees who are in recovery helps ease the stigma of addiction. An understanding atmosphere sends a clear message to other employees that your company believes recovery is possible and that your workplace is a safe place in which recovery can thrive.

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