You’re nearing the end of treatment, and you’ve started thinking about returning to work. Congratulations are in order! That said, you may have some very mixed feelings about being back on the job, and you might be unsure just how much you should share with your boss or co-workers about what has been happening in your life.
Less Is More
Some people choose to keep their mental health and recovery stories out of their workplace. There is nothing wrong with this decision. As noted by Peter Grinspoon, a medical doctor who recovered from opiate addiction, there can be massive stigma around addiction. Dr. Grinspoon described worries he felt when returning to work after successfully completing treatment: “Stigma is what differentiates addiction from other diseases, and is primarily what can make the return to work so difficult. If I had been out of work to receive chemotherapy or because of complications from diabetes, I certainly wouldn’t have felt self-conscious or self-doubting upon resuming my employment. Due to the prejudices that many people in our society hold, the return is psychologically complex and anxiety-producing.”
Some people feel it is easier to not disclose their mental health history and to simply move forward with their lives. This is a very personal choice that no one can make for anyone else.
The Power of Open Communication
While there is no law that says an individual must disclose any health status, choosing to share that information could be beneficial.
Your employer may offer benefits that can help you in your journey. An insurance plan that covers treatment; flexible schedules that allow an employee to attend follow up appointments–all of these potential benefits might make your employer a great ally on your journey. Even if you’ve chosen to complete treatment without using any benefits your employer offers, you might still choose to use a company-provided Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to find a mental health practitioner in the area.
How to Disclose
If you decide to share your story with your boss, have a plan for how you’re going to structure the conversation:
- Schedule a 30-minute, one-on-one conversation with your boss.
- Consider a neutral location if you have privacy concerns.
- Share only what you choose to share.
- Focus on the positives of how treatment will make or has made you a better employee.
- Remind your employer that mental health or addiction is a disease and that your privacy is protected by law.
- Include a human resources or union representative if possible.
Because mental health disorders and substance use disorder is a disease, you may be protected under the same federal laws as cancer, diabetes or any other medical condition, which include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA only applies in certain cases, so it is important to find out if your workplace qualifies. It may be necessary to disclose your reason for needing FMLA to your human resources department in certain cases, but HR personnel are expected to keep your information private.
Should you have a relapse, your employer can choose to dismiss you, not for your diagnosis, but for poor performance or unsafe decisions you make on the job or for putting the company in a bad light.
Laying a Foundation for Success
In addition to considering what information to share with your boss and co-workers, it will be important to consider how you will balance your recovery, family obligations, work expectations, and anything else you have going on once you return to your job. It may be necessary to reduce your hours overall, adjust your schedule to attend therapy, and have a plan to avoid co-workers who socialize in ways that aren’t supportive of your long-term recovery goals. You may even decide that your current place of employment or career path aren’t conducive to your future health. It will be important to be honest with yourself and your support system, so that you can make the right choices for your future.