Having a coworker return from treatment for substance use can bring about many feelings. You might find yourself feeling worried due to the high rates of relapse for many substances. You may be curious about your coworker’s experience. It’s also likely that you’ll feel uncomfortable about what to say and do.
Substance use hasn’t always been an acceptable conversation in the workplace, but with growing awareness and openness these topics can be broached in a respectful way. In this article we’ll give you some expert tips for having a hard conversation around substance use and treatment in the workplace.
Respecting your coworker’s privacy
Regardless of how you hear about a coworker’s treatment for substance use disorder, it important to understand some ground rules before diving into a sensitive conversation.
The first thing you’ll want to be aware of is respect for your comrade’s privacy. While you coworker’s absence or behavior at work is surely noticeable to everyone in your workplace, it doesn’t need to be discussed by everyone. Respect boundaries and consider the closeness of your relationship.
Evaluate your own motivations for discussing substance use treatment. If you’re just interested because the news is juicy, it’s better to wish your coworker well and leave the topic as is.
If you do decide to discuss treatment for drug and alcohol abuse with your coworker, don’t push. With treatment comes many raw emotions and wounds that need time to heal. Pestering for answers or asking probing questions can feel more like an interrogation than a gesture of support for you coworker. Allow for sharing at his or her comfort level.
Another helpful tip to keep in mind before you even begin these discussions is to foster acceptance with receiving little to no information. Generally in conversations, we expect to get back what we put into them. If you’re making the effort to talk about something vulnerable, it can feel dissatisfying when your coworker doesn’t share. While it might feel strange to you, it will make your coworker feel safe and respected.
What to say
There is no perfect formula for what to say in any given moment, most especially in the moments following your coworker’s return from treatment. While it can feel intimidating finding the right words to say, expressing your support could be invaluable to your coworker.
Here are some conversation starters that you can use without coming off as intrusive or judgmental.
“I’m not sure how to say it, but I’d like you to know I am here for you.”
- This simple statement acknowledges that you feel awkward, but also lets your coworker know that if they feel like talking, you’re there to listen. They can guide the discussion if they feel like talking further.
“I’d love to catch you up on what we worked on while you were gone.”
- This statement takes the pressure off your newly-arrived coworker and allows for a change of subject. It also acknowledges his or her absence so you can come back to that later if your coworker is up to it.
“We missed you at the office, no one else gets projects done like you do.”
- Expressing gratitude for your colleague can be a reassurance when his life probably feels like it’s been tipped upside down. This statement also doesn’t demand an answer but allows for a response.
“I hope everything went well with treatment. How does it feel to be back at work?”
- This open-ended question allows your colleague to discuss the transition from treatment or avoid the subject if preferred. It can also help ease your coworker through the awkward transition back to work by allowing him to discuss normal, daily things.
Try one of these comments or a combination of them. Of course, if you are a close friend of your coworker, you can also ask directly about treatment. Knowing your role in your coworker’s like can help guide you to the most appropriate way to welcome her back to the office.
What not to say
There’s no need to tip-toe around your coworker, but you should also make an effort to avoid certain phrases that could come across as demeaning. Work to avoid the following conversation starters.
“My sister went to treatment so I know how you’re feeling.”
- Unless you’ve been in your coworker’s situation, refrain from trying to relate to his or her situation. Your coworker’s history with drugs and alcohol and treatment experience is completely unique.
- You may believe you’re showing that you relate to your colleague’s treatment experience, but your coworker is newly sober and needs positive thoughts, not negative ones.
“I know this will turn out fine.”
- This may sound upbeat to you, but to a person in recovery who has learned about the high rates of relapse, it sounds unrealistic and naïve. It also comes across as dismissive of the looming possibility of relapse.
“I bet treatment was hard.”
- A phrase like this only invites negativity and discomfort. It’s not a question, it doesn’t evoke a sense of support or encouragement and it doesn’t allow for much of a response beyond “yes.”
Keeping in mind some key phrases to say and not to say can help you start an important but difficult conversation.
Pay attention to social cues
Once you’ve embarked on this tricky conversation and your role in supporting your coworker’s success, it’s important that you remain aware of social cues. Notice body language, tone of voice and facial expressions to gauge whether the conversation is worthwhile.
While support from those in the workplace is often helpful, sometimes it can be damaging. If these conversations tend to end with your coworker shutting down, acting defensive or seeming flustered, it’s better to stay quiet.
If your colleague has recently returned from treatment, it can also be a benefit to your conversations to have an awareness of local treatment centers. Should your friend confide in you about treatment and express a desire for continuing support after the initial rehab period, be sure to suggest Rehab After Work.
Rehab After Work offers a variety of out-patient treatment options so your coworker can live a life of freedom. Learn more when you call (610) 644-6464 today.