Returning to Work After Rehab

Completing a rehabilitation program for addiction is one of the most powerful steps you can take to change your life. After successfully completing a treatment program, you're equipped with a new set of tools to help build your new path forward. You're motivated and ready to tackle the challenges of sober life, but one thing may still worry you: going back to work.

Coming back to work after staying in residential rehab will feel strange and potentially frightening due to all the unknowns involved. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to manage your anxiety and get back to work without suffering a relapse.

Understanding the Emotions

To say you're anxious about returning to work is likely an understatement. You may have a cascade of thoughts swirling around your mind such as "what am I going to say?" and "what will they think of me?" These thoughts are perfectly normal, although the extent to which they are accurate varies widely.

There is, unfortunately, still a significant stigma against people struggling with addiction. Some people may be less than welcoming upon your return, based purely on their own preconceived notions of what addiction and recovery look like. They may not be willing to trust you and may act strangely as a means of displaying their discomfort.

Alternatively, your drug or alcohol addiction may have led you to behave in ways that negatively affected co-workers and caused your contributions to the team to suffer. When you've caused harm through your addiction, returning to work can be even more terrifying. The range of emotions you feel will be staggering no matter what terms you left on. One of the first things you should do before returning to work is to make sure you understand your rights and feel comfortable exercising them.

Your Rights Under FMLA

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives certain employees up to 12 weeks of leave per year. The leave is unpaid but job-protected, and the Act requires that the employee's group health benefits remain intact while they are gone. FMLA applies to public agencies, public and private elementary and secondary schools, as well as companies with 50 employees or more. You are eligible for leave under FMLA if you:

  • Have worked for your employer for at least 12 months
  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months
  • Work in a location where the company has 50 or more employees within 75 miles

FMLA allows for you to leave your job temporarily to receive substance abuse treatment and prevents your employer from taking action against you. Both alcoholism and addiction to drugs fall under the umbrella of disabilities as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The Act protects you from discrimination based on past use and the fact that you have undergone treatment. This isn't blanket protection, however. The rules to remember are:

  • Your employer can implement discipline or discharge you if your drug or alcohol abuse renders you unqualified for the job or adversely affects your ability to perform your job.
  • Your employer can issue drug tests and prohibit the use of illegal drugs or alcohol in the workplace.
  • Your employer can hold the same performance expectations for a person in recovery as they do for other employees.

In other words, FMLA and the ADA don't grant you any special protections or provide any outs for you if you are performing poorly on the job. However, if you can function well in your role and meet expectations, your employer cannot take any negative action against you. With this understanding, you should feel more comfortable about the idea of returning to work.

Commonly Asked Questions From Co-Workers

One of the scariest prospects of your first day back to work after drug or alcohol rehab is the barrage of questions you might face from your co-workers. Every workplace is different, and some people are lucky enough to know their co-workers will respect their privacy. Whatever your workplace is like, it's helpful to be prepared. The following are three common questions that can cause anxiety.

1. "Where Were You?"

It's important to remember that you are under no obligation to answer questions you don't want to, including this one. If you don't feel like sharing with overly curious co-workers, you can say so. It's easier said than done, but often a reply like "I'm actually not comfortable talking about that" will often be enough to assert your boundaries.

2. "Are You an Alcoholic?"

Some co-workers will be brazen about their questions, or downright rude to you on purpose. If you encounter co-workers who seem bent on prying out the specifics of why you left for treatment, you can always take the same approach and shut them down directly. However, if you want to be more diplomatic, it's okay to acknowledge your struggle with addiction. You can be as vague or as specific as you want to be.

An answer like "I've been getting treatment for substance abuse" is all they need to know, if you feel like revealing anything at all.

3. "Are You Cured Now?"

Some co-workers may seem skeptical about treatment and your recovery and ask pointed questions about whether rehab "worked" or not. You already know that addiction recovery is a journey on a lifelong path, but you don't need to explain this concept to people in your workplace.

Aside from firmly stating that this is not an appropriate question, a good idea is to redirect their attention toward work. Try saying something like "I'm glad to be back, and I'm ready to dive back into work" to keep the topic of conversation on the task at hand.

Plan a script in advance. Having answers prepared beforehand can help ease the anxiety you feel when you interact with people in your first days back at work.

Avoiding Anxiety and Relapse

Once you pass the hurdle of your first day and start to get into a rhythm at work, you'll have to pay close attention to the triggers that can crop up in the workplace. The first few days, or even weeks, back on the job, you'll likely be on your "best behavior" and give all your attention to being productive as well as sociable.

It sometimes feels easier to ignore triggers when you're on high alert the first few days, but identifying them and preparing strategies to cope is essential to staying sober outside of rehab. These are three of the most common scenarios that can cause anxiety about a return to work from rehab.

1. Awkward Social Interactions

Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans and a strategy for what you'll say to co-workers can sometimes fail. Even if an awkward interaction isn't centered around your substance abuse treatment, the knotted feeling in your stomach is a tell-tale sign that you should deploy one of your anti-anxiety techniques.

It can be challenging to keep the bigger picture in mind when you're worried about the fallout of an awkward run-in, and that can throw off your ability to work productively. Any meditative practices you've learned will help you calm down and view the encounter in a more realistic light not colored by anxiety.

2. Workplace Festivities

It's common for companies to hold get-togethers during or after working hours, as a way of encouraging teams to get to know each other and bond. For someone in recovery, that often means having to cope with the presence of alcohol. It's okay to skip one or two of these events as you're finding your feet at work, but eventually, you'll need to work out a plan for attending them while staying sober. That might mean taking frequent breaks or finding a way to volunteer to keep busy during the event.

3. Pressure to Perform

Wanting to do well at work is perfectly normal. As a recovering addict, you may feel you have a lot to prove — especially if your addiction affected your performance before you left for treatment. You might feel the need to overwork yourself to prove your renewed commitment, but that's not healthy for you and doesn't set a good precedent for you.

You should work with your company's HR department to create a right-to-work agreement upon your return. This will help establish what's expected of you now that you're back at work, giving you and your employer a clearer picture of what you should be accomplishing.

Strategies for Reducing Work-Related Stress

With the above pressures and more to deal with, you need to work to minimize the stress you feel at work. When the pressure's on, here are a few tips for keeping your stress levels in check at work.

  • Know Your Limits: You will encounter uncomfortable situations, and it's imperative that you can identify how much stress is too much.
  • Learn to Escape: This doesn't mean fleeing the scene at the first sign of stress. It means being willing to exit a situation that you know is going to trigger cravings, and doing so calmly and politely.
  • Stay Engaged: When you're bored, cravings can be stronger than ever. If your job has moments of "boring" downtime, see what you can do to engage yourself in work further. It can help control cravings as well as earn you some points for initiative with your superiors.
  • Find Trustworthy Colleagues: It's not always possible to find someone at work you can put your trust in, but if you can, it can be a big help in easing workplace anxiety.
  • Communicate With Management: Clear communication with supervisors and managers can help clarify expectations for both parties. When there are fewer gaps in communication, there is less stress from trying to anticipate the unknown.
  • Avoid Burnout: If you end up using work as a way to avoid dealing with your emotions, you may end up burning yourself out quickly and spectacularly. Don't take work home with you, and watch out for burnout signs like growing cynicism and fatigue that doesn't seem to quit.

Tips for Staying Sober

Going back to work after rehab is all about balance, and that extends to your personal life as well. If you spend all your time at work implementing smart strategies but go home just to fall back into negative patterns, all your hard work might be erased. These basic tips will help you avoid cravings once you're at home and off the clock.

  • Get Active: Mental health issues like depression and anxiety are common during recovery, but exercise is known to improve the symptoms of both. You don't need to spend hours at the gym. Just incorporate at least a few minutes of exercise each day in any way you can.
  • Eat Right: Addiction to drugs and alcohol takes a lot out of your body, and you'll need adequate nutrition to get your health back on track. Eating enough can also reduce mood swings associated with low blood sugar.
  • Sleep Well: Sleep has a huge effect on your mood and ability to focus at work. If you're not sleeping enough or have poor quality of sleep, try implementing a sleep schedule or creating a routine to help you drift off at the right time.
  • Find Support: Recovery isn't something you can sustain on your own. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery can help provide you with advice and encouragement to keep you going strong through your first days back at work and beyond.
  • Seek Ongoing Care: Therapy was a crucial part of your treatment program, and it can be an invaluable part of your recovery. Therapy can help you continue to build your self-esteem and provide ongoing improvement of your coping skills as you return to work.
  • Pursue an Activity: If you find yourself bored when you're not at work, you're at increased risk of relapse. Picking up a hobby or volunteering with a local organization will keep you busy and provide opportunities for socialization, both of which will help reduce relapse risk.

Diamond House: A Foundation for Recovery

The idea of returning to work after rehab is daunting for anyone, and the anxiety surrounding the transition can keep people from fully engaging in treatment. At Diamond House Detox, we understand that a successful return to work is one of the most important aspects of recovery. Our program includes multiple types of addiction therapy designed to teach you the skills you need to navigate the world after rehab — including the return to work.

If you're ready to take the first step toward reclaiming your sobriety and living the life you know you deserve, Diamond House is ready to help. Our private detox facility in Sacramento takes just six guests at a time to ensure you get the one-on-one attention you need to overcome addiction and get a head start on clean living. To find out more about our program, we invite you to give us a call at (800) 205-6107. Our lines are open 24/7. Alternatively, you can contact us online for more information on our addiction treatment facility and program.

This content was medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet PMHNP-BC, on August 19, 2019.




Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet