In one memorable episode of The Office, Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott organizes a workplace intervention for his alcoholic employee Meredith — and his so-called “surprise party for people with addictions” is a total disaster.
Michael Scott may be a mid-level manager at a fictional paper company, but his actions do reflect a reality in the workplace: Nearly 1 in 10 full-time workers in the United States has recently had a substance abuse problem, according to 2015 findings by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The lingering stigma surrounding drug and alcohol addiction can impede many addicts from seeking effective treatment. It’s difficult to tell your employer that you need to leave work for weeks or months to enter rehab. If you are struggling to get the conversation started, try some of these tips:
Know Your Rights
Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, employees don’t have to choose between going to treatment and keeping their jobs. The FMLA allows people to take a job-protected leave of up to 12 weeks for family and medical reasons, one of which can be drug or alcohol rehab. (Learn more about whether you are FMLA-eligible.)
Do Your Homework Before Talking to Your Boss
Give plenty of consideration to the circumstances of your employment:
- How long have you been employed here, and what is your status of employment (full- or part-time, exempt or nonexempt, etc.)?
- What does your employee handbook say regarding leave of absence policies?
- Do you have a sense of mutual trust and rapport with your higher-ups?
Such considerations should factor into any decision about how much information to volunteer. In some cases, sharing more information than is necessary can introduce additional anxiety about an interaction that is already anxiety-producing. Or, that information may come back to haunt you later on when you’re back on the job and successfully in recovery.
You should also research and confirm the following factors ahead of time so that the conversation goes as smoothly as possible:
- The exact dates of your time away from work
- Your availability to work during treatment, if any
- How you are preparing for your absence so that it causes the least amount of disruption to workflow or strain on your supervisor and colleagues
Think about what you’ll say to your boss before sitting down with them. You may also benefit from consulting with an addiction professional before the meeting. Some rehab programs have counselors on staff who can help you prepare for these sorts of conversations.
Decide Whether to Reveal to Your Boss That You’re Going to Rehab
As an employee with a health problem, you are entitled to the same degree of privacy as any other employee. You are not legally required to tell your employer the specifics of your condition.
In fact, many people entering rehab choose not to divulge this fact to their employer. You can always request an unpaid leave of absence for personal medical or non-medical reasons — no further explanation needed. Alternatively, if you’ve accumulated enough vacation or sick days to cover your time in rehab, you can simply request the time off without needing to ask for medical leave.
Be Clear About Your Motivations and Treatment Details
If you choose to divulge that you’re going to rehab for drugs or alcohol, consider mentioning the following:
- Your apprehension about the conversation and why you feel that way, whether it’s the stigma of the disease, the fear that your boss may lose confidence in your abilities, etc.
- Your desire to be honest about your medical decision, given that your boss may have concerns about your request or may need a doctor’s note or other information as verification
- How treatment will improve your job performance and reduce absenteeism
- A drug-free workplace policy (if there is one) that you take seriously
- The provisions of the FMLA, if applicable
- A request for confidentiality about your decision to enter rehab
- Your enthusiasm about returning to work after rehab
Avoid going into any detail about the history of your addiction or your uncertainties about the treatment process and whether treatment will help. Try to answer any questions honestly but also as succinctly as possible.
Most importantly, keep the tone positive. Remember that your boss has enough to manage. Too many personal details may send the message that they now have another problem on their hands, which is the last thing either of you need — a reminder that comes by way of Michael Scott.
Anna Ciulla is the vice president of clinical and medical services at Beach House Center for Recovery.