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What’s a Recovery-Supportive Workplace Anyway?

(October 2019 [updated September 2021]) When talking to employers about their current challenges, chances are good that you hear about their difficulty finding and retaining good employees.  Part of the challenge is attributed to the unemployment rate, while other factors include a lean employable workforce (often linked to the opioid epidemic) and the increased prevalence of positive drug tests.

Some employers have resorted to eliminating drug tests or no longer testing for marijuana, the most widely used illicit drug.  It’s a fascinating and ironic departure from decades of believing that people with substance use disorder (SUD) – or even those in recovery – suffered from a defect in moral character, treating these people as weak, lazy, irresponsible and an employment risk.  Oftentimes a positive drug test meant refusal to hire or immediate termination.  Now we find ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum, where some employers feel that the only solution is to ignore employees’ substance misuse and implicitly accept the potential liability and risk associated with it.

Yet, there’s a different response that yields a safer, more responsible and more cost-effective result for the individual employee, their coworkers and the employer.  It’s known as a “recovery-supportive workplace.”  A recovery-supportive workplace is a workplace whose culture and operations reflect an understanding of substance use disorder (also referred to as addiction) and works to motivate and support employees in recovery while protecting the company and its other employees.

Managing risks and yielding benefits

Admittedly, the thought of hiring or retaining a person in recovery with a history of alcohol or other drug issues may bubble up feelings of concern and apprehension.  But because of scientific advancements like brain imaging technology, we now know that substance use disorder is a brain disease that is preventable and treatable – similar to other behavior-related, chronic diseases like heart disease and Type II diabetes.  The key difference is that this disorder is surrounded by stigma. And reducing or eliminating this stigma requires undoing decades of mental programming, which can be tough. It takes exposure to education, research and dialogue to truly accept and adopt this new understanding of addiction as a medical issue.

At the same time, symptoms of the disease – like working or driving under the influence – are scary and dangerous. So, it’s no wonder some employers have concerns about safety, liability and productivity, as well as concerns about employees in recovery having a setback (also known as a relapse).  But treatment based on proven methods and matched to the unique needs of the individual works.

It’s important to remember, though, that like other diseases, substance use disorder must be managed over a lifetime.  Sometimes relapse does occur, which typically means treatment needs to be adjusted.  Yet, relapse rates for SUD are comparable to those treated for high blood pressure.  And having a job actually improves the chances of staying in recovery, because the individual has a sense of purpose and contribution, and a support system.  What’s more, a recovery-supportive work environment can help to prevent a setback.

It’s not just the employee that benefits from a supportive workplace. Employers who offer second chances benefit too.  The skill-set required to maintain life-long recovery are valued by many employers, e.g., determination, sharp problem-solving and coping skills, grit, resilience and commitment.  Additionally, research shows that employees in recovery have lower turnover, absenteeism and health care costs than the general workforce.  On top of that, terminating an employee instead of offering assistance can be expensive – costing an employer an estimated 25 – 200% of an employee’s annual compensation to replace them – not to mention the loss of all of that knowledge and experience.


Before highlighting some things employers can do to create and sustain a recovery-supportive workplace, it’s important to know what laws and authorities may require employers to do in relation to an employee in recovery.  For example

  • Some professions and industries may have rules and codes of ethics around substance use disorder, so if you have an employee with a professional license or credential, proactively research those authorities,
  • Employers regulated by the Department of Transportation must follow certain steps if an employee confesses a problem, tests positive for a prohibited substance, or is offered a “second chance,” and
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with substance use disorder if they are currently in treatment, have successfully completed treatment, and/or are in recovery. The law also protects an employee with a current alcohol problem IF they are able to perform functions and tasks essential to their job and adhere to HR policies. However, employees currently using illicit drugs – including the illegal use of prescriptions – are not provided protection under the ADA.

It’s prudent to seek legal counsel to address all issues of accommodation, especially as they relate to your policy and practices related to handling medical conditions.

Tips for success

Once you understand what you might have to do, how do you responsibly create and sustain a recovery-supportive workplace?  A comprehensive, best practice drug-free workplace program is the foundation. That includes a written policy and procedures, annual employee education and supervisor training, drug testing and a plan to assist employees who need it.

Beyond having a best practice drug-free workplace program, here are seven other ways employers can support employees in recovery:

  1. Encourage employees in recovery to be upfront and honest if they feel their recovery is in danger – just as you would encourage an employee recovering from a heart attack to speak up if their symptoms returned.
  2. Employees may need time off for ongoing support or treatment. Think through your sick time, paid time off, leave without pay or flextime policies.
  3. Keep lines of communication open with employees and their counselors.
  4. Hold employees accountable to your usual work standards and consider whether temporary accommodations are needed – just as you would for an employee beginning treatment for another medical condition.
  5. Do follow-up testing as recommended by a counselor or directed by your drug-free workplace policy.
  6. Provide supervisors quality drug-free workplace training, equipping them to handle situations appropriately.
  7. Encourage work/life balance and overall wellness to minimize stress, which can trigger a setback.

Again, our understanding of substance use disorder may be slow to change despite scientific evidence, but exposure to education and research will increase awareness and knowledge. Interested in learning more?  Visit https://www.workingpartners.com/recoverysupportiveworkplaceresources/ for additional information on this topic, including a video that you can easily share with others.

DISCLAIMER: This publication is designed to provide accurate information regarding the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that those involved in the publication are not engaged in rendering legal counsel. If legal advice is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.