Working Through Recovery: How to Navigate Sobriety on the Job
Updated June 24, 2022
Working while in recovery comes with many opportunities and challenges. In this article, you will find relevant information, tips and guidance on how to navigate sobriety while on the job.
According to recent research, about 20 million adults in the United States struggle with substance use disorders. The CDC estimates that more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in the past 12 months, and alcohol-related deaths in recent years hover at around 95,000. One study found that approximately 22 million adults in the U.S. have resolved a substance use problem in a variety of ways, with 30% of those engaging in formal treatment. With these numbers, one thing is clear: Addiction, and subsequently recovery, play a profound role in the lives of millions of Americans, and their presence in the workforce.
What are the benefits of working through recovery?
If you are in recovery, you may already know that having a job and a steady income are key components of successful sobriety. In fact, people in recovery from substance use disorders who maintain consistent employment tend to have higher rates of abstinence and overall quality of life and lower rates of relapse, criminal activity and parole violations. Here are just some of the benefits of working while in recovery:
If you have struggled with severe addiction, you know how substance use disorders can cause destruction in your life. Having a job can help provide you with the stability and consistency you need to rebuild your life. “If you can prioritize structure after getting off track in the whirlwind of drugs and alcohol addiction, then you’re on the right path,” says Jeff Schwartz, founder and CEO of Harmony Place, a Los Angeles-based adult detox and residential dual diagnosis treatment facility.
Jobs can help you feel a sense of purpose. If you’re in early recovery, you may discover that your options are limited due to the mistakes you may have made while using. If that’s the case and you are feeling discouraged, consider that each day you spend working a job in recovery, even if it’s a job that doesn’t align with your ultimate career goals, is a day spent with purpose and meaning, which can help with relapse prevention.
Being in recovery can involve facing the damage of past behaviors. This can also mean overwhelming debt, housing issues and even food insecurity. Working can help get you back on your feet financially, while improving your sense of self-worth and resiliency.
If you’re in early recovery and just exiting a treatment program or in a sober living environment, gradually getting back into the workforce can expose you to life’s daily stressors in a more controlled environment, which can help you learn to manage triggers over time in healthier ways. It also gives you the opportunity to put all that progress you made in treatment to the test. Moreover, getting busy with a job can help keep your mind active and focused, rather than dwelling on your past mistakes or memories.
If you have struggled with severe substance use disorders in the past, you may have burned some personal and professional bridges. Getting back to work and upholding your responsibilities, one day at a time, can help others witness the progress you’ve made and your commitment to your sobriety.
Things to consider before you return to work
If you’re newer to recovery, you may be struggling to incorporate your pre-existing job into your newfound sober lifestyle. Schwartz, who opened and operated 10 treatment facilities before founding Harmony Place nearly a decade ago, cautions against jumping right back into your job after getting sober or engaging in any detox programs. “If you’re going to go back to work immediately after getting sober, the least you could possibly do is to allow recovery to be the first and foremost priority in your life. If you can’t see how important it is to protect your sobriety, then you are probably not ready to go back to work just yet.” Take things slowly as you get back to work, and aim to put your sobriety over all else.
This may mean transitioning from a residential treatment program to a partial hospitalization program (PHP), intensive outpatient program (IOP) and staying in a sober living facility as you move through the early stages of recovery. In fact, sober living facilities can provide you with the right mix of freedom and accountability to start working part-time or easing back into your old job if it’s still available to you.
Pros and cons of returning to your previous job
If your prior work environment is a potential trigger for using, then returning before you have the chance to solidify your sobriety can increase your risk for relapse. This is especially true for those in very early recovery, particularly if you haven’t had time to build out a sober support system and related coping strategies for cravings.
Additionally, some jobs can simply be too risky to return to if you’re new to sobriety, such as bartending or working in venues where alcohol is served or drugs are recreationally consumed. This is also true if you’re thinking about going back to a job with colleagues who used to consume drugs and alcohol with you, or if recreational drinking or drug use are part of the workplace culture. If your previous job involved functioning in high-stress environments, caring for people’s health and safety or administering medications, you may want to reconsider what you will do for work as you move through recovery.
That said, there are some clear benefits to returning to an old job, including:
Maintaining some consistency and continuity in your life while negotiating recovery
Going back to a job you already know how to do, which could lessen the stress of onboarding at a new job while also managing recovery at work
Engaging in pre-existing work relationships and friendships, and related professional supports
Making good use of established benefits, sick days and health insurance
Getting another shot at a job you conducted before entering recovery could instill feelings of motivation, ambition and hopefulness
How to find a job while in recovery
If you’re newly sober and you do not have a pre-existing job to return to, or if the career you had is no longer available to you, finding work while in recovery can be a daunting task. “Finding work when you’re in early recovery can be difficult. If you’ve got a felony conviction it can feel like nobody wants to take a chance on you, which can be tough. But there are options, you just really need to have a sense of purpose and humility when re-entering the workforce,” says Schwartz.
If you feel like you’re starting over in your career and the mere thought of going back to work overwhelms you, consider taking a step-by-step approach to your professional goals as you navigate working in recovery. It may mean getting a lower paying, entry-level job in the meantime as you work your way toward your longer-term goals. It can be helpful to utilize time management and organizational tools such as a planner or mobile phone app that assists you with setting short-, medium-, and long-term goals. This can help you organize your time in the present while also giving you the ability to map out your career trajectory, and the steps you need to take to get there.
“Humility is an operative word,” says Schwartz. “I’ve seen PhD doctors early in recovery working at Starbucks and telling me that it was the best thing they ever did, because it gave them structure and a sense of purpose.”
Schwartz also recommends exploring options for job skills training, resume writing and navigating the interview process. In fact, some addiction treatment centers and sober living facilities offer these resources to their clients, knowing how vital working through recovery can be to achieve long-term sobriety.
Jobs to consider while in recovery
Even though millions of Americans are in recovery, there is still a stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction, which can make it seem as though many professional doors are closed to you. This simply isn’t the case: There are a number of employers both large and small who recognize the widespread nature of addiction, and who offer Employee Assistance Programs specifically designed to support their employees in recovery.
Here are just some job options for recovering addicts:
If you are considering a career in recovery services or behavioral health, keep in mind that oftentimes staff hired in these venues are required to be sober for 6 months or longer. That said, do not let this deter you! If you are passionate about helping others as you have been helped, remember that many treatment centers and sober living facilities will hire those who are in recovery themselves once they complete a certain number of months or years in sobriety. There are good reasons for this:
“What I’ve seen in my 31 years of doing this, is that too many people relapse because of the pressures of working in recovery and hearing about drugs and addiction all the time before they’re ready. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to work with somebody who struggles with the same problems and temptations as you do,” says Schwartz.
5 tips to balance work and recovery
If you found a job or you’re heading back to your previous job, you may be experiencing a mix of excitement and anxiety. This is perfectly normal. Working in recovery comes with its share of stressors. Here are five tips to assist you with managing this process:
Prioritize your health: Make sure that you get 7-8 hours of sleep, regular exercise, a diet filled with fresh, whole foods and plenty of water. If you’re tired, malnourished and depleted, workplace stressors will only increase your risk for relapse.
Practice sober self-care: Make sure you prioritize adequate time each week for meditation, journaling, breathwork or any other grounding practices that help you feel your best.
Get support: Make sure you have a solid schedule of 12-step meetings, support groups and easy access to sober coaches, sponsors and/or mentors who can help you when you’re experiencing cravings. Supportive friends and family can also be very helpful to rely on in stressful times.
Compartmentalize: Practice being present as much as possible. Leave workplace challenges at work, and, when you’re not working, try to release yourself from worry or job-related stress.
Maintain good boundaries: When in recovery, you may struggle with setting boundaries and saying no. Practice accurately, fairly and professionally communicating what you can and cannot do each day. Setting realistic expectations for yourself first enables you to do so with others.
Wherever you might be on your recovery journey, remember that working, if handled mindfully and intentionally, can be one of the most powerful relapse prevention tools in your arsenal.
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