How to Approach Your Employer About Treatment

This article was written and published by RCA


Living with mental illness or a substance use disorder (SUD) can create a range of issues for someone including the toll they can take on your personal, social, and professional lives. From poor physical health to damaged relationships to negatively affecting work, SUDs and mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and trauma can wreak havoc. Fortunately, effective treatment options do exist and recovery is possible. So how do you get to that point?

Navigating the treatment process to get to recovery can be daunting for some, but it doesn’t have to be. While family and friends can be most helpful, understanding, and supportive, knowing what steps to take with your employer, your rights, and your benefits aren’t quite as clearcut. The risk of losing your job may be terrifying and the thought of facing your boss or human resources representative may overwhelm you. It’s important to be prepared and know your rights. If you work in an environment where there is established trust, you may be able to have an honest conversation with your employer. If open communication doesn’t feel right, don’t let it stop you from getting treatment. Your workplace may actually have more resources to help than you realize. So where do you start?*

You Have Rights

First, know that Federal law prohibits employers from refusing to hire, firing, or discriminating against employees based on disability, which includes mental health and substance use disorders. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people struggling with mental illness and in recovery from SUD, and allows a company to offer leave or other assistance that would enable someone to seek treatment (“reasonable accommodations”), in what is known as a “Last Chance Agreement.” Importantly, it does not explicitly protect the jobs of employees who are currently using illegal drugs that may impair their ability to do their jobs or endanger lives. That is, your employer has the right to confront you about your current drug use, test you, and terminate you because of it, another solid reason for you to seek treatment immediately.

Your right to take leave for treatment is something that may be covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This entitles most employees to take up to twelve workweeks in a 12-month period of unpaid, job-protected leave for specified medical reasons including treatment for mental health and substance use disorders. This means that you have the right to seek treatment without fear of losing your job. Leave may be taken all at once or may be taken intermittently as required. This law, generally speaking, applies to private employers with at least 50 employees, but if your company has fewer employees, you may still be covered by state medical leave laws. Additional criteria about your length of employment, hours worked, and location must also be met. Refer to your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), health benefits, or this FMLA Employee Guide to determine eligibility.

If you do meet the requirements, the process is pretty straightforward :

  1. Provide notice to your employer as soon as possible. You do not need to disclose your reason for taking leave, but you do need to provide information indicating that your leave is due to an FMLA-protected condition.
  2. Your employer will notify you whether you are eligible for FMLA leave within five business days and, if you are eligible, provide you with your rights and responsibilities as well as any medical certification (verification) requirements. Importantly, treatment for substance use and mental health disorders often require immediate attention and action and should not be delayed while the process of eligibility is determined.
  3. If certification is required, you must provide it to your employer within 15 calendar days.
  4. When you return to work, your employer must return you to your same or nearly identical job.

As every situation is unique, it may be wise to consult with an attorney for clarity about your rights.

Know Your Health Benefits

When substance use or mental illness limit or eliminate your ability to work, you may be able to turn to your short-term disability policy to make ends meet. To be eligible, you must prove that your substance use or mental illness is disabling, which may be defined as an inability to do your actual job or any other type of full-time work, depending on your policy’s terms and conditions. If you qualify, your insurance company will pay you between 60-70% of your average wages during that calendar quarter while you are in treatment, depending on your state and policy. Open enrollment for short-term disability benefits varies, so check with your employer for more details.

It is also critical to understand your health insurance plan. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 is a federal law that generally requires health insurance issuers to provide mental health and substance use disorder benefits equal to medical/surgical benefits. This means that your mental health or SUD treatment may be covered by your insurance policy, drastically reducing your out-of-pocket costs. Check your plan and your treatment provider for insurance verification.

Get Treatment Now

Support is available for working professionals who are ready to get treatment for their mental health or substance use disorder. The reality is that there still may be professional risk or consequences in admitting you have a problem and seeking treatment. But those risks are far outweighed by the enormous risk of continued substance use or untreated mental illness. Right now, approximately 275 people die every day from drug overdose, and we lose someone to suicide every 11 minutes. You cannot let fear of discrimination or job termination dictate this life-or-death decision.

*This information should not be construed as legal advice and one should consult with his/her/their attorney.

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