If you’re struggling with a substance use disorder, you’re not obligated to tell your boss. In fact, federal law, including the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act say that you don’t have to. The Affordable Care Act classifies addiction as a mental health disorder and a temporary disability – that means your boss isn’t even allowed to ask you details or what’s wrong with you.
However, it may be valuable for you to tell your boss about your addiction or your history of addiction. For example, doing so might help get you into a drug and alcohol rehab center which will enable you to get clean and get back to work. Or, it might give you the leverage to change specific circumstances around your job so that you can make more room for your recovery.
In either case, make sure you decide that you really want to involve your workplace before proceeding. You don’t have to and doing so could endanger your job in some cases. We’ll cover how and why below.
It’s important that you ensure you’re sober and can pass a drug or alcohol test when you tell your boss or the Human Resources department about your disorder. Otherwise, you could lose your job. Why? Most workplaces have strict no drinking and no drug policies in place. If you break those, you might be fired. Even if your boss can show that you were drinking or high at work at any point in time previously, it could result in you losing your job. For example, if you are on a security camera drinking or showing signs of inebriation.
Quitting drugs and alcohol for 3+ days while addicted can be immensely difficult. You may want to seek out a detox program to help. This might also be necessary for your safety because once you detox, it’s significantly easier to overdose. Why? Your tolerance will go down quickly. If you attempt the same amount of drugs or alcohol you did before quitting for a few days, it could be too much for you. If you do start using again after quitting, proceed with caution and make sure you have someone around to help in case things go wrong.
You’ll want to take time to learn about your drug or alcohol use disorder, to plan how to respond to your boss, and to set clear goals for the future. There’s a strong chance that the people working around you are aware something is wrong. They might even know what it is. Taking your addiction to management or your boss might not be such big news. However, it’s important that you go in prepared.
Honesty – If you’re being honest, commit to honesty. Tell the truth about how long you’ve been using and about being addicted. For legal reasons, you may leave out any instances where you might have decided to use at work or where you might have broken laws other than using illicit drugs.
Set Clear Goals – Define what you want from the future. For example, do you want to continue working with this company? Are you intending to go to rehab? For how long? In which state? Are you intending to seek out support from your employer when you do so? If you’ve already gone to rehab and gotten treatment, your goals should likely organize around staying clean and sober. For example, how are you handling maintenance therapy? Can you handle your existing workload? Are you attending AA or another self-support group?
Know Your Rights – Brush up on your rights under federal law. For example, did you know that the Family and Medical Leave Act entitles you to 90 days of medical leave from work, no questions asked? You have to provide a note from your doctor or that of a family member, but your boss isn’t even allowed to ask what for. Did you know that a substance use disorder is legally classified as a temporary disability and you are protected from losing your job, unless you’ve used at work or endangered others? Did you know that your employer’s insurance is required to cover at least part of your treatment? If you have your own plan, your insurance is.
You could theoretically just mail your boss going, “Hi, I have a substance use disorder and I’d like to request medical leave”, however, most of us don’t want to do that. Chances are, your boss will also want to have a sincere discussion with you about your goals, your future, and your mental health state.
The good news is that your immediate colleagues are likely concerned about your wellbeing. They want you to get better and to succeed. And, even if your boss doesn’t care about you as a person, they do care about how you work. Everyone is a better employee when not suffering from a health disorder.
You should also:
The safest way to come clean to your boss is after you’ve gone through rehab and treatment. This allows you to talk to your boss from the grounds of being in recovery and starting off on “a new foot”. However, you may want their help with treatment, you might want to get into a work sponsored program, or you might want to improve your relationship with them in general. In that case, make sure you go in clean and sober, be prepared for an interview, and stay calm. You are protected by law and, chances are, your boss knows that.
Good luck with your talk.