For many people in early recovery getting back to work is simultaneously stressful and beneficial. You may be anxious about how others will see you if they know the reason for your absence. Allaying any concerns your boss and co-workers may have about your capabilities and reliability may also be of primary importance to you. Or your situation may be even more complicated. Perhaps you’re dealing with resentment from colleagues over your past job performance, attitude or absenteeism. In addition, gossiping co-workers can mean a difficult work environment for some recovering addicts.

First, it’s important to note that under the Family and Medical Leave Act you are allowed to take medical leave without providing specific details to your employer about why you were out of the office. Diagnosed addicts are also protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If your supervisor, clients or close colleagues know your situation, however, it’s only natural to feel sensitive to their reactions. You may feel that everyone is watching you, expecting you to make a mistake or start using again. Don’t try too hard to prove yourself; you’ll likely wind up taking on too much work at once and the result may well be that you appear scattered, unfocused and unprepared. You’ll also be more stressed out – and the more tension you’re under, the more likely you’ll seek an escape from it, putting yourself at risk of relapse. Instead, pace yourself. Do one thing at a time to the best of your ability. Schedule projects and ask for help if you need it. You’ll eventually get back in the groove.

Once you’re back at work one of your first steps should be to speak with your supervisor to ensure you’re on the same page about your responsibilities and your ability to fulfill these. Ask for some one-on-one time to go over what you’ll be working on for the next few weeks and months while you’re in early recovery. Recovery experts say that being upfront with your boss about taking it a little slow on your initial return to work is perhaps the best thing you can do. It not only clarifies expectations, it shows your boss that you’re conscientious and committed to ramping up your productivity as time goes on.

If appropriate, open the conversation by thanking your supervisor for being understanding and for giving you an opportunity to again prove yourself. Tell him/her that you’re working hard at your recovery and will be attending 12-step meetings and/or therapy on a regular basis (this is also important to make clear if you’ll need some time off to go to either). You need to assure your boss that you will devote your full attention to your assignments, but that you’re hoping to gradually return to a full workload. Once you get the go-ahead to proceed on a lighter schedule, or that you’ll be given a longer lead time on certain projects, for example, thank your boss and return to your desk. Breathe a sigh of relief and acknowledge to yourself that you’ve taken a tough but necessary step to help balance out your workload and minimize stress on the job, which will go a long way toward ensuring you maintain your sobriety, especially during early recovery.

Not all bosses are understanding, of course. What if yours more or less demands that you get back to work, full-throttle, that the projects you’re responsible for are way past due or that if you can’t handle your work as is they’ll find someone else who can? If this happens, first, don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Since you need a job, you’ll have to figure out a way to make things work. Ask for a few days and promise your supervisor that you’ll come up with a plan to gradually (but as quickly as possible) ramp up your work, find help in getting projects completed on time or devise another solution. If your boss still balks, acknowledge his/her frustration and reiterate your commitment to doing the best job you can and also to meeting the needs of the company. If you and your boss can’t reach an agreement, you may need to make a trip to Human Resources.

Having a conversation with colleagues with whom you’re close is likely to be necessary, too. Emphasize again that you learned a lot in treatment (if you went), that you’re in recovery and clean and tell them you’re glad to be back and are ready to work. That’s enough said; there’s no need to go into details. By setting the stage with these up-front discussions with the people you work with, you can head off misunderstanding and, hopefully, regard some people’s reactions as simple curiosity. After all, addiction and recovery aren’t familiar to everyone; it may just take getting used to for some of the people you work with. Be yourself, do your job, help others when you can and give the re-adjustment a little time.

The situation will naturally be more complicated and potentially difficult if your conduct caused hardship for your co-workers. In that case, you’ll need to acknowledge what happened and make amends accordingly. On the flip side, some people you work with may have even enabled your addiction, either by covering for you on the job or using with you or providing you with drugs; in this case you may need to limit contact. Talk to your sponsor or counselor to plan out what to say in these scenarios.

You probably also have good friends among your co-workers, people who are simply happy you’re back. A good move is to talk with them privately, away from the job (there’s no point risking an accusation of carrying on personal conversations when  you’re trying to re-establish your credibility and professionalism) and let them know that you‘ll be gradually easing back into your work schedule, if your boss has agreed to this. Ask for their understanding and assistance, if appropriate, to get certain projects or assignments completed on time. They may need to get approval from their boss to help you out.

Even if a colleague doesn’t assist with your workload, they can provide moral support and encouragement during lunchtime and get-togethers after work. Just be sure these gatherings take place at neutral locations – no bars, clubs or venues where alcohol or other addictive substances are available, if using any of these violates your sobriety. It may be a good idea to keep your social calendar with work friends a bit fluid too. If your colleagues typically go to happy hour after clocking out you may need to suggest, for example, a sporting activity or trip to a gym or park to work out instead. Exercise is a great way to rid your body of job stress, too. If they’re true friends as well as co-workers, these colleagues will have your best interests at heart. Just don’t expect them to continually pick up the slack for you on the job, especially if they did so when you were using; this naturally breeds resentment. Nurturing these relationships is important. After all, having someone to laugh and chit-chat with  – on the job and off – is an important part of your strategy to balance the stress of work while maintaining your recovery.

Above all, remember that others typically don’t judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves. Despite the stigma of mental illness — which includes addiction — your perception of what other people are thinking is likely more severe than what anyone really thinks of you. In fact, people in recovery frequently tell stories of returning to work being greeted by support and a warm welcome. And even if you feel ostracized or judged when you first go back, your problems will soon become a distant memory in office chatter. As you sustain your recovery and find renewed success at work, your experience may even be an inspiration to others struggling with addiction.

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