October 31, 2023
Title image reads "The Recovery-Friendly Workplace Guide: Supporting Employees in Recovery" over photo of people in group therapy

So, you want to become a recovery-friendly workplace and support employees in recovery. Implementing an effective and inclusive program requires training, time, and effort, but it’s worth it considering the difference employers can make. Recent research has found that:

  • 90% of Americans suffer from some kind of mental health issue
  • 50% of employees sought help at work for a mental health issue
  • 49% of all American workers struggle with substance misuse

When you support your employees throughout their recovery journey, they are more likely to stay sober and employed with you. 

However, you need adequate substance use processes and policies for your program to be effective. You may be wondering how to help an employee who is struggling. And how do you know when it’s time to make the difficult decision to terminate them?

An impactful recovery-friendly workplace primarily comes down to your company’s mindset and approach. Remember that substance misuse is tied to mental health issues—this perspective can help you come from a place of compassion and empathy. 

Keep reading to learn: 

  • The benefits of supporting employees in recovery
  • How to create a recovery-friendly workplace
  • How to assess when it’s time to terminate

Benefits of Supporting Employees in Recovery

Simply put, assisting your team members who are struggling with substance use means helping those with mental health and personal issues (e.g., relationships, family, finances, etc.). In doing so, you help them become happier, more fulfilled, and more productive members of society. All of this has a ripple effect—on your other employees, overall business, and community!

By creating a recovery-friendly workplace, employers can: 

  • Improve employee retention and loyalty
  • Foster a healthy and positive work culture
  • Boost employee productivity, engagement, and job satisfaction
  • Reduce turnover, absenteeism, and health care costs
  • Increase ROI over time as employees maintain recovery and stay with the company

Supporting workers with SUD positively impacts both the employees and the business. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), each employee in recovery saves a company more than $8,500 on average!

6 Ways to Create a Recovery-Friendly Workplace

Look Through a Lens of Employee Mental Health

For many employers, transitioning to a recovery-friendly workplace begins with a mindset shift. Look through a lens of the employee’s mental health, not just a lens of addiction. Start with simple changes in the language you use. Move away from phrases like “substance abuse” and “alcohol abuse” and instead use “substance misuse” or “use.” Instead of calling someone an addict, refer to them as a person who is addicted to drugs or an individual with SUD.

Open yourself up to the availability of helping someone through recovery. Yes, you’ll need to invest time and resources into research and educational opportunities—but keep in mind the long-term ROI and positive impact you’ll be making on both the employee and your business!

These changes will help:

  • Eliminate the stigma around substance use disorder (SUD) among your company
  • Make employees more comfortable reaching out for help 
  • Encourage open conversations about drug and alcohol misuse as well as mental health

As you get started, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for resources and information. If you’re a New Hampshire employer, learn how to become a designated Recovery Friendly Workplace in the Granite State. Many other states have established their own recovery-friendly workplace initiatives, so find out if yours is one of them.

Develop a Substance Use Policy

Every organization should have a clear, well-communicated substance use policy emphasizing support, treatment, and confidentiality. While you’ll need to tailor your policy to the needs of your company, it should generally include:

  • Purpose and Scope: State the policy’s intent, underscoring the organization’s commitment to a safe and productive work environment and supporting employees dealing with substance use issues. List who is subject to the policy, such as all employees, contractors, and volunteers.
  • Expectations and Restrictions: Explicitly outline the company’s expectations regarding substance use at the workplace, including the prohibition of illegal drug use and being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 
  • Consequences: Describe potential consequences for policy violations, which may include disciplinary actions like warnings, suspension, or termination. Ensure leadership enforces these consequences consistently and fairly.
  • Confidentiality: Note that employees’ disclosures are confidential, and your company is committed to protecting their privacy when seeking assistance or treatment.
  • Reporting Process: Outline the steps employees should take when they suspect or witness substance use issues. Clarify that reporting will be handled discreetly.
  • Accommodations and Return-to-Work Procedures: Advise employees on seeking accommodations for treatment or recovery, including time off, modified duties, or flexible schedules. Describe the steps for a safe and supported return to work. 
  • Drug Testing Procedures (if applicable): If drug testing is part of your policy, detail the circumstances under which testing may occur, the types of tests used, and the procedures for handling positive results.
  • Anti-Retaliation Clause: Include a clause prohibiting retaliation against employees who report concerns, seek help, or participate in a recovery program.

Always work with your HR and legal teams to ensure your substance use policy complies with local, state, and federal laws. If you need policy development guidance, BlueLion can help.

Know the Warning Signs of SUD

Recognizing the signs of SUD and training managers to identify and address these issues is crucial to creating a supportive and recovery-friendly workplace. By educating your team, you empower them to provide early intervention and support to employees who may be struggling. Common indicators of SUD include:

  • Changes in behavior, such as erratic or unpredictable behavior, frequent mood swings, and increased irritability or agitation
  • Performance and attendance issues or an increase in workplace accidents or errors
  • Physical signs like bloodshot or glazed eyes, frequent nosebleeds, slurred speech or impaired coordination, tremors, or an unsteady gait
  • Neglected personal appearance, such as personal hygiene, rapid weight loss or gain, and neglected grooming and attire
  • Social isolation, which can appear as withdrawal from colleagues, social activities, and decreased participation in team events or meetings
  • Unexplained financial difficulties and frequent requests for salary advances or loans
  • Relationship issues, whether in personal relationships or frequent conflicts with coworkers or supervisors
  • A previously reliable employee becoming unreliable and disengaged

Conduct regular workshops and training programs to keep leadership educated on the warning signs of SUD, the process for reporting them, and methods for addressing substance misuse. 

Address Substance Misuse

Whether an employee comes to you to share their substance use issue or you have noticed the signs, you should handle the situation carefully. Follow these steps to take a supportive approach and respect their dignity and privacy:

  1. Express Concern and Offer Support: Start the conversation by expressing your concern for the employee’s well-being and job performance. Discussing performance or conduct problems can encourage them to open up and lead to more frank conversations about substance use. Ask how you can help and let them know you are there to support them.
  2. Listen Actively: Allow the employee to share their perspective and any challenges they may be facing so you can gain a full understanding of their situation.
  3. Encourage Treatment and Refer to Resources: Encourage the employee to use the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other resources for counseling and support and stress the importance of treatment and recovery.
  4. Set Expectations: Communicate your expectations regarding job performance and behavior. Reiterate that while you support their recovery, they must meet certain standards.
  5. Document the Conversation: Keep a written record of the meeting, including what was discussed, any agreements made, and any commitments from both parties.
  6. Follow Up Regularly: Continue to check in with the employee regularly to monitor progress, provide support, and ensure they adhere to any agreed-upon arrangements.
  7. Address Performance Issues: If the employee’s substance use issue has significantly impacted their job performance, address those issues separately and follow your organization’s performance improvement or disciplinary process as necessary.
  8. Be Prepared for Relapse: Understand that relapse can be part of recovery. Approach relapses with empathy and continue supporting the employee’s efforts to get back on track.

Accommodate Treatment & Recovery Needs

After addressing the substance misuse concerns and determining the next steps, discuss accommodations with the employee. Offer flexible work schedules and accommodations to support employees in their recovery journey. This can mean allowing reasonable time off for treatment, counseling, or support group meetings. You might also provide flexible work hours or a hybrid work schedule. 

However, be cautious when permitting employees in recovery to work from home. While this can lower their commute time, it can also lead to more time spent at home alone and isolated, which can affect their mental health and lead to the potential risk of relapse.

Encourage Engagement & Healthy Practices

Host activities to keep employees in recovery engaged and help them build stronger relationships with their colleagues. Schedule fun events regularly, such as potluck meals, monthly breakfasts, or themed cooking competitions. 

Chameleon Group, a designated Recovery Friendly Workplace based in Dover, NH, is a shining example. They have incorporated several unique activities and resources for their team members in recovery. They even stock a food pantry and attend coworkers’ drug court graduations! Discover more ideas and inspiration from how they focus on addiction recovery in the workplace

Additionally, help your employees in recovery maintain a healthy work-life balance. Discourage overtime work and remind them to take regular breaks and time off. Excessive work can contribute to severe stress and burnout, which in turn can lead to relapse.

When is Termination Necessary?

Perhaps you’ve made a significant effort and accommodated an employee in recovery for some time, but they’re not improving. While termination should be a last resort, unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to ensure workplace health and safety.

If you’re wondering if it’s time to terminate the employee, consider:

  • Job Performance: Does substance misuse consistently and significantly affect their ability to perform their duties? 
  • Workplace Safety: Does the employee’s condition threaten their safety, their colleagues’ safety, or the safety of the overall workplace?
  • Reasonable Accommodation: Are they unable or unwilling to engage in treatment or respond to accommodations you’ve made to support their recovery?
  • Policy Adherence: Does the employee continually violate the substance use policy despite being informed of and given ample opportunity to follow it?

Always consult with your HR or legal counsel to ensure any termination complies with anti-discrimination laws, disability accommodation laws, and other legal regulations. While you have the right to take disciplinary action, including termination, proper documentation and handling of the employee’s alcohol or drug use is vital to avoiding future lawsuits and reputational damage.

Learn how to handle employee terminations, and check out our employment termination checklist to protect your business.

Keep Employee Mental Health Front-of-Mind

A compassionate and supportive approach is essential when dealing with employees facing substance use issues. Although addressing substance use-related issues is important, a recovery-friendly workplace must also provide a safe and understanding environment for employees to seek help and recover.

You can build a culture of empathy and positivity by:

  • Viewing substance misuse through a mental health lens
  • Developing a substance use policy centered on support, recovery, and confidentiality
  • Knowing and training leadership on the signs of SUD
  • Addressing substance misuse with compassion, fairness, and follow-through
  • Allowing accommodations like flexible schedules to support the employee’s treatment and recovery
  • Encouraging engagement and healthy practices to foster a supportive network and prevent stress

If you need guidance as you develop or update your substance use policy and implement these practices into your employee wellness program, contact BlueLion today at 603-818-4131 or info@bluelionllc.com! We’ll help you navigate these sensitive matters and make a difference in your employees’ lives.

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.