Making the decision to take a leave of absence from work in order to seek treatment for substance use can be difficult, yet necessary in order to fully heal and recover from a substance use disorder.
Many who decide to take a leave of absence in order to enter treatment have worries that make it challenging to discuss taking leave with their employer. Common fears include:
- Insurance coverage
- Employer or workplace discrimination
- Fulfilling job responsibilities
- Job duty coverage
- Job loss
- Managing the expectations of partners, bosses, coworkers, and others
Laws, protections, and resources for leave of absence for substance use
When discussing a leave of absence in the workplace, it’s important to know about relevant laws and protections:
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
It’s important to know that the ADA does not protect employees who are “current” substance users. However, those who are currently participating in a treatment program and are no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs do qualify for ADA protection.
Too, ADA protections vary based on substance. Those who meet criteria for an alcohol abuse disorder are generally seen as a person with a disability under the ADA, whereas someone who is struggling with abusing an illegal substance is protected under the ADA only if they are not currently using the illegal substance.
Under the terms of the ADA:
- Employers cannot fire, refuse to hire, or refuse to promote someone simply because she or he has a history of substance use.
- Employers also cannot fire, refuse to hire, or refuse to promote employees merely because they are enrolled in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program.
- Employers cannot single out an employee for drug-testing, even if they suspect an employee to be using a substance.
- Employers should refrain from asking employees about their legal prescription drug use as part of the pre-hiring or pre-promotion drug-testing process.
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
FMLA applies to all public agencies and to private employers with more than 50 workers.
Under FMLA, these employers must allow employees who have worked for the employer for at least one year and who have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave because of their own serious health condition or to care for a spouse, child, or parent who has a severe health condition.
Eligible employees may use their FMLA leave to deal with substance use disorders and related problems, including:
- Treatment of substance use disorders
- Treatment of another physical illness or incapacity related to substance use (such as kidney failure)
- Caring for a close family member who is undergoing treatment for these conditions
FMLA also prohibits employers from retaliating against workers who request FMLA leave. For example, an employer cannot demote, fire, or refuse promotion to an employee simply because that employee takes 12 weeks off for treatment of a substance use disorder. Employers also are prohibited from taking any action against workers who request time off to care for family members struggling with substance use.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and Insurance Coverage
Some employers offer EAPs, which may provide substance use counseling or referrals to treatment. Along the same lines, you can check with your health insurance provider to determine what treatments your insurance will cover.
In order for your health insurance provider to cover substance abuse treatment, you will need to prove medical necessity. Unfortunately, insurance coverage may dictate what treatments are financially feasible for you or your family. Some treatment programs may be able to accommodate your work schedule or allow you to work during your treatment stay.
Discussing a leave of absence with your employer
The following considerations are important when discussing a leave of absence with your employer:
- Are you protected? Do any of the aforementioned laws and regulations offer you protection? If so, you may feel more comfortable being transparent about your substance use and seeking treatment. If not, you may find it best to share only on a “need to know” basis — for example, only those in Human Resources, who finalize any necessary leave paperwork, know details about you seeking treatment.
- Know your treatment options. Before notifying your employer, you will want to know what treatment program will be the best fit for you. Once you’ve selected a program, you will have more information in order to inform your place of employment and to plan for your leave.
- Consider boundaries. Depending on your relationship with your employer or workplace, you may feel comfortable sharing details about seeking treatment for substance use. However, know that you don’t necessarily need to offer an explanation if you don’t wish to. You can simply tell others that you’re taking a leave of absence. You are entitled to your privacy.
- Plan ahead. If possible, prior to your leave of absence, make sure that your job duties and responsibilities are transitioned to whoever will be covering for you. Clearly, communicate any necessary details to allow for the smoothest transition possible. Relay any relevant information and notify others about if and when you’ll be in touch.
- Discuss your return. If possible, communicate the details about your transition back to the workplace. You may wish to provide information about when you are expecting to return and how you will return. This will allow for a smooth transition back to work. Too, once in treatment, it’s important to discuss your transition back to work with your treatment team, as this transition can have its challenges.
How and how much you share about taking a leave of absence from work to seek substance use treatment is ultimately up to you.
You may find it necessary to be transparent about why you are taking leave.
Some find that by being more honest and upfront about their situation, the more support they gain from those around them, while others decide that sharing only on a “need to know” basis is best for them. In the end, it’s what feels best to you that matters most.
If you are struggling to decide what or how to share your leave of absence with work, it may be helpful to seek the support of a licensed counselor specializing in substance use.
1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Drug-free workplace, Legal requirements, Federal laws, and regulations. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/workplace/legal/federal-laws on June 14, 2019.
2. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). EEO: Disability: Are employees undergoing treatment for drug and alcohol addictions covered under the ADA? Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/adadrugsandalcohol.aspx on June 14, 2019.
3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Drug-free workplace toolkit. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/workplace/toolkit/provide-support on June 14, 2019.
About the Author:
Chelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework.
She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published July 2, 2019 on AddictionHope.com
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 2, 2019