If you’re unsure how to interact with a co-worker returning from treatment for a substance use disorder, the situation could feel awkward and uncomfortable. While you might be curious or concerned about how the person is doing, you’ll also want to be respectful of your co-worker’s privacy.
Keep your co-worker’s perspective in mind. Each person handles addiction and treatment differently. Take cues from your colleague by paying attention to their reactions when you’re talking. If your co-worker seems reluctant to talk, respect that preference.
What to Say
Here are a few conversation starters and other things you could say to show you’re supportive, without being intrusive.
“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 co-worker know that if they feel like talking, you’re there to listen. Leave it at that, so your colleague won’t feel pressured. They can guide the discussion if they feel like talking further.
“I’m thinking of you.”
It’s a short and simple sentiment that lets your co-worker know you care.
“How are you feeling today?”
Asking this general question provides an opportunity for your colleague to open up and discuss issues in detail, or it allows them to simply give a brief answer and move on.
“This project is more challenging than I expected.”
Talking about everyday work items fosters a sense of normalcy. The person’s treatment stay or return to the workplace doesn’t have to be the focus of every conversation. Including your colleague in work-focused conversations will help them to feel like a member of the team, despite the absence.
What Not to Say
Here are a few sentiments to avoid when talking with a coworker who has returned from treatment.
“My sister went to treatment and she had a hard time.”
You may believe you’re showing that you relate to your colleague’s treatment experience, but your co-worker 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.1 It also sounds dismissive of what they worry about, which is relapsing.
“The same thing happened to my uncle and it worked out great for him.”
Often, people will use someone else who went through treatment as a comparison. While it may be a nice story, it takes the focus off your co-worker’s individuality. One of the significant things people in recovery learn is that sobriety is highly personal, because each person’s situation is unique.2 Your colleague’s focus is on their own recovery, so keep your uncle out of the discussion.