When an employee first learns that the assessment has determined they have a substance problem and they need help, the question I love to hear is, “What do I have to do to get better?” But the question I get often is, “When I am going back to work?” The answer to the second question is in the first question. Appropriate action from the employee will make a good case for returning to work. Remember that these employees are off work for a reason – safety!
During a follow-up interview after treatment, I ask, “What are you doing today that makes it reasonable for me to assume that you are not going back to your drug of choice?” I look for two key indicators that an employee is working on themselves: action and attitude. First, they need to be doing something to help themselves. When they are, they also feel better. When employees are grateful for the chance to change, I believe they are on the right track. Gratitude and action together shows me that they are moving ahead. This does not happen overnight, so the employer has to have strong boundaries, only returning employees to safety-sensitive work once certain actions are fulfilled.
People are people, and what they say they are going to do, they don’t always do. Some people are moved to change when the pressure is on, but after that their effort dwindles. The return-to-work process cannot be dogmatic or inflexible; it must be reasonable. Sometimes we just have to give some solid direction and wait to see what happens.
While looking for characteristics in the employee and their behaviour that indicate a good change is taking place. I ask myself, “Does this person have a reasonable chance of not allowing alcohol or drugs to affect their job when they return to work?” The key word is reasonable. The process must be fluid while taking into account what the employee does. Are they moving away from drug usage or back to it?
If a person attends counselling rehab or self-help, the ultimate goal is the same, to get sober, stay sober and become a useful, safe employee that is not a risk due to substances. Just as addiction has recurring patterns or themes, recovery has patterns and themes that indicate whether the person is going in the right direction or not.