Seeking treatment is a potentially life-changing event for women with substance abuse problems. If you have decided that it might be time to seek treatment, you are not alone.
In 2021, more women than ever face the possibility that rehab might be in their best interests. The COVID-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on everyone, especially women. Some lost jobs, while others faced health crises. Many mothers assumed responsibility for child care and remote learning, which was stressful and time-consuming, especially for working mothers.
It's no surprise to mental health professionals that women were seeking some relief through drugs and alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in June 2020 that 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use during the pandemic.
Add to that a woman's natural physical vulnerability to substance abuse — even consuming small amounts of a substance can produce stronger effects in women than men — and it's a perfect storm.
Admitting that your use of substances has gotten out of control isn't easy for anyone, but it can be more challenging for a woman to raise her hand and ask for help for various reasons. There are societal expectations about femininity that can make it hard to admit.
Plus, mothers worry about how their children and others they care for will fare if they need to go to in-patient rehab.
Should losing one's job by going to rehab be among a woman's fears? The answer is no. If you are in trouble, you deserve to get the help you need to get healthy again. After all, women can suffer a whole host of physical problems that men don't face, including issues related to hormones, menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.
While the following is not a substitute for legal advice regarding a woman's individual case, here are some things to think about when deciding how (or if) to bring up the matter at work:
Understand the legal protections available to you
Various legal protections against job loss exist for people seeking treatment. Whether or not they are applicable depends on the individual's circumstances, company policies, and even where one lives. Thus, it pays to look at specifics.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Receiving protection against job loss under this civil rights law hinges greatly on what substance is being abused and when.
As explained by Melissa Gonzalez Boyce, JD, legal editor at XpertHR, "While the federal Americans with Disabilities Act does protect individuals who are former or recovering drug addicts from discrimination by employers, an employee currently using illegal drugs is not considered to be an individual with a disability under the ADA. Therefore, because an employee who is illegally using drugs is not protected under the ADA, how an employer handles an employee who is using illegal drugs may depend on various factors, including the employer's policies."
Matters change if the substance in question is alcohol. The ADA considers alcoholism, current or past, a disability.
"Unlike current illegal drug use, an employee's current alcohol addiction is protected by the ADA and may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation if the employee is qualified to perform the essential functions of a job," Boyce says. "However, an employer may prohibit the use of alcohol in the workplace and is allowed to take adverse action against an employee whose performance is impaired by the use of alcohol. Employers can hold employees whose misconduct or improper behavior is caused by alcoholism to the same standards as other employees."
Many people with drug problems also abuse alcohol. Because of the difference in how the two substances are treated under the ADA, focusing on the latter in a conversation with your boss may be a smart idea.
"The disease is essentially the same, and it's all addiction," says California employment lawyer Heather Bussing. "The trouble is that it's against public policy to create legal protections for someone who is currently doing something illegal. It's best for employees to present the issue as an alcohol problem even if they are also using drugs."
Bussing also stresses awareness that state laws may provide more comprehensive protection. In California, for instance, both alcohol and drug addiction are considered disabilities, and employers generally have to give people the opportunity to recover.
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
In addition to ADA considerations, employees covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may be entitled to protected leave for substance abuse treatment. The FMLA applies to public agencies and private employers with more than 50 workers.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "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 serious health condition. Eligible employees may use their FMLA leave to deal with substance use disorders and related problems, including treatment of drug or alcohol addiction; treatment of another physical illness or incapacity related to substance use (such as kidney failure); or caring for a close family member who is undergoing treatment for these conditions."
The U.S. Department of Labor reiterates that an employer may not take action against an employee who exercises her right to take FMLA leave for substance abuse treatment. It notes, however, "If the employer has an established policy, applied in a non-discriminatory manner, that has been communicated to all employees, and that provides under certain circumstances an employee may be terminated for substance abuse, then pursuant to that policy the employee may be terminated regardless of whether he or she is presently taking FMLA leave."
Thus, workers need to familiarize themselves with their own company's drug and alcohol policies. The employee handbook also may provide information on any return-to-work agreements a worker must comply with when coming back from rehab, such as drug testing.
Employee Assistance Programs
Employers know that the physical and mental health of their employees impacts the company's bottom line. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management puts the workplace cost of alcoholism and alcohol abuse in the range of $33 billion to $68 billion per year. When individuals receive the help they need, productivity increases, and absenteeism and accidents decrease.
Many organizations offer an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) as part of their benefits package. This free, voluntary service provides evaluation, short-term counseling, and referrals for more extensive help if deemed necessary.
A selling point when touting an EAP to staff is confidentiality. While this isn't to say that a leak is impossible, such a breach definitely would not reflect well on the organization — especially if it led to a termination. Thus, seeking substance abuse treatment through this outlet might feel less risky.
Consider your presentation
Armed with knowledge about your rights and company policies, talk to your manager. You do not need to present your life story or every detail about your addiction or your treatment plan, but if you need to take time off to go to inpatient treatment or need to adjust your schedule to attend support groups, you'll likely have to say something to your boss.
Keep it simple by requesting a private meeting. Then simply state that you have a problem and are taking appropriate steps to address it. Don't be surprised if the other person seems to already know the situation exists. Substance abusers often do not "cover their tracks" as well as they think, and others may already suspect the struggle.
While much of the conversation will focus on your needs during this critical time, showing concern for the company demonstrates respect. Come to the meeting with a plan for how your tasks might be handled during the temporary absence or schedule change.
Silence is an option, too
Still too scared possible career problems could result from telling your employer? Don't let that fear keep you from seeking treatment. If you have a sufficient number of sick days, consider taking them to enter rehab. State the leave as a health problem without launching into details, and present a general letter from your doctor.
Or, use your vacation days, which requires no explanation. While not as fun as a tropical getaway, the impact on your well-being will last much longer.