Workplace Protections and Employment Supports Promote Addiction Recovery

/ February 21, 2023

By Elliot Pinsly and Amy Harley

Addiction to drugs or alcohol is a complex and challenging condition that affects millions of people in the United States. While many people with substance use disorder want to work, they often face barriers to employment, including stigma, a lack of affordable housing, and/or limited access to treatment and recovery services. People with substance use disorder are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to have been involved with the criminal justice system, and more likely to experience transportation barriers. They also are more likely to have lower levels of education and lower incomes than the general population. These factors can make it difficult for individuals to find and maintain stable employment, which can, in turn, continue the cycle of addiction and poverty. Steady employment provides not only financial stability, but also a sense of purpose and belonging.

Did you know there are federal laws in place that provide protections for people in addiction treatment and those working on their recovery? The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities – including those with substance use disorder who are not actively using illegal drugs – in employment, housing, health care, and other domains. Employers accountable to the ADA include private companies, state and local governments, employment agencies, and labor organizations. The ADA requires these covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to support people with disabilities to perform their job duties. Additionally, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in most types of housing, regardless of the funding source, with substance use disorder included as a protected disability class.

To address the employment barriers faced by those with substance use disorder, some promising models have emerged that support workers and employers. One is the recovery friendly workplaces model, which promotes an inclusive and supportive workplace culture that recognizes and accommodates the unique needs of people in recovery. This can include providing accommodations such as flexible scheduling, on-site recovery support, and employee assistance programs. (For those not familiar with employee assistance programs, EAPs are a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. Many employers offer EAPs.) Supported employment, on the other hand, focuses on providing individualized support, such as a job coach and other assistance to help people with mental health or substance use disorders. Such programs assist individuals in gaining meaningful employment that is consistent with their interests, skills, and career goals.

Research has shown the effectiveness of these programs in increasing employment outcomes for individuals with substance use disorder. A 2014 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that people who received supported employment services were more likely to secure and maintain employment compared to those who did not receive such services. Another study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2018 found that individuals who worked in recovery friendly workplaces were more likely to remain employed and have improved job satisfaction.

The Caring Workplaces program in Northeast Tennessee is an example of a program that utilizes both the recovery friendly workplaces model and supported employment services to assist people with substance use disorder in finding and keeping a quality job. The program, which launched in 2020, serves all counties within the First Tennessee Development District. The program includes training and technical assistance for employers, as well as job coaching and other support services for individuals in recovery.

Despite the progress made by programs in Tennessee such as Caring Workplaces and Individual Placement and Support (often referred to as IPS), administered by agencies contracted with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, there is still a significant need to expand employment services and supports for people with substance use disorders across the state. To address this need, it is essential for state and local governments to provide funding for supported employment and recovery-friendly workplace programs that can engage with as  many employers as possible. Also, education and awareness campaigns can help to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction. By working together to make specialized employment services and supports available to those in recovery, we can help break the cycle of addiction, create more inclusive and equitable career pathways for vulnerable Tennesseans, expand businesses’ talent pools, and build stronger communities.

I want to thank Elliot and Amy for explaining both the workplace protections and the types of job supports available for those with substance use disorders. This information was new to me. Our state has significant issues with addiction, and I’m hopeful that more employers will consider ways to make their businesses and organizations more supportive of those seeking recovery and employment! As always, if you have questions or concerns related to disability and employment, please contact me at Thanks for reading!

Elliot Pinsly

Amy Harley

Elliot Pinsly is a licensed clinical social worker and the chief executive officer of the Behavioral Health Foundation in Nashville.

Amy Harley
is a policy intern at the Behavioral Health Foundation and a social work student at the University of Memphis.

The Behavioral Health Foundation is a nonprofit policy research center dedicated to driving policy and systems changes that improve the lives of individuals with mental health and substance use disorders. For more information, contact or 615-669-2544.

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