How to welcome back a colleague who is in recovery

Peter Grinspoon, MD

Contributing Editor

It can be awkward or difficult to welcome back a colleague who has been absent for reasons related to mental health. These issues, historically, have been taboo, and are loaded with stigma. It is hard to know how to act toward a colleague who has returned from treatment for a mental health issue. Do I ask about it? Do I pretend that nothing happened? Do I say that I hope they are feeling better? Usually, none of these options feels right.

This difficulty is particularly true when colleagues return from being treated for problems with drugs or alcohol. The stigma in our society against people suffering from addiction is rampant and deadly. I have experienced such stigma myself and have written about it here. Many people view “addicts” as morally impaired and deserving of scorn and derision, and not worthy of compassion and care.

Fortunately, as our society comes to understand addiction as a brain disease, and as a medical problem much like diabetes or cancer, our unhelpful attitudes about addiction are starting to change. Addiction has nothing to do with a lack of morals or character, and people certainly shouldn’t be blamed for having an addiction any more than you would blame them for having cancer. But prejudices fade slowly. Even progressive people with the best intentions can still have implicit bias toward people suffering from substance use disorders who are returning to their workplace.

What can I do to support my coworker?

A good first step toward successfully supporting a person in recovery is to honestly examine your own beliefs and feelings about addiction, and to make sure that your response to the colleague you are about to welcome back isn’t hampered by any hidden negative attitudes. If you find yourself uncomfortable with the idea of working with an addict, there are many ways you can learn more about addiction to become more comfortable and educated about the subject.

It is critically important to try to understand what your colleague might be experiencing as they reenter the workforce. Most people who are early into their recovery process suffer from guilt, embarrassment, and shame, and it takes a lot of courage for them to walk through the front door on their first day back at work. They most likely feel quite vulnerable and fragile, and it is helpful to be sensitive to their state of mind, and to be as open and welcoming as possible.

There is no fixed formula for how to help someone who is returning to work after suffering from a substance use disorder. It partly depends on your relationship to them, both personally and professionally. It also depends on a keen reading of the returning person’s personality, as some people are going to want everything out in the open from day one, and others are going to feel more comfortable being discreet. If you are comfortable offering a listening ear, then be receptive to any overtures they might make to discuss their addiction. You can welcome any discussions they might start about their experiences, their addiction, struggles they may be having, and help they might need, including the possibility that they are struggling with a relapse. Colleagues can be a critical source of strength and support, and it’s important not to miss any opportunities that arise where you can help.

What can we learn from people in recovery?

As more people with substance use disorders recover and return into the workforce, it will be increasingly understood that recovery from addiction is about far more than not taking drugs. Recovery is about learning to listen, having humility, and connecting with other people. These are ideal traits that foster a healthy and productive work environment. Rather than being a burden, the employee who is recovering from addiction can very likely be a role model for other workers, and should be welcomed with open arms to any job in today’s economy, where communication and being a team player are highly valued. I predict that today’s stigma will give away to tomorrow’s embrace.

Comments:

  1. Eugen Ioanid

    I am amazed that we ASSUME that Rx opioids are “gateway” drugs when heroine and fentanel (obtained by mail order from China as US Mail just can’t go through tons of mail and some who find it keep it for sale) are much too often the start drug with no gateway drug. So let’s stop blaming grandma for leaving around her unused pills, making them gateway for grandkids. The sutions to pain you offer: antidepressants and NDAIDs and Tylenol are extremely dangerous. But more important, middle aged people are not looking for a high, nor pain relief; THEY ONLY SEEK TO BE FUNCTIONAL AND GAINFULLY EMPLOYED. They do not look at drugs to make them happy. They want to be happy that they’ve got the job others depend on them to do DONE, period. Nothing is as effective as opioids in getting you to grin and bear it so that you can function and not be detoured by chronic pain. I won’t go into the physiology, but doses that do not leave abtunded do not block the sharpness of acute pain, only dial down chronic pain. The latter is what makes perseverance impossible while acute pain is deemed part of physical burden of effort. All the other pain suppressors weaken, dull and confuse the ability to follow through. Proof is that most opioid users suffering chronic pain stick to one dose indefinitely while users of the other drugs match and mix due to ineffectiveness or to full sideffects from these drugs. The trouble with opioids is that, over the long term, IN PEOPLE SEEKING ONLY TO CONQUER chronic pain enough to be functional, they block the pain and the job gets done but the warming offered by pain block results in inflammation, then fibrosis, permanent injury. But no antidepressant can cure the despair from inability of a mom or dad who fail to do what they feel must be done. Working with the relief from what you recommend leads to serious overdosing and/or side effects. The only gateway drugs are heroine, delivered to home-alone kids to the door by drug cartels and the fentynel delivered by the mailman from China. DEA is scapegpating MDs trying to give parents and grandparents enough relief so they can get the job done. We were not built to last past 40years old so they need opioids to get them by. But your analysis fails to note their critical duties done in pain made tolerable by opioids because you were blinded by the glare of reckless users for a high— a state whose dose requirement increases exponentially over time to where it causes respiratory arrest. But unlike the former, who must get it from the pharmacy, the latter get it delivered to the door on demand. Please don’t confuse the two, making the former suffer disability because you can’t think of anyway of controlling the illicit access of the latter.

  2. Peter Grinspoon, MD
  3. DavidE

    Wouldn’t a “good to see you, glad you’re back” greeting be appropriate in almost all cases?

  4. Kenan Mirazli

    Very helpful information! Thank you very much