How do I handle the return of my supervisor who was out for several weeks getting help with her substance abuse issue? It’s hard to rebuild that trust after her work suffered so much due to her drinking.

Elaine Varelas guides on providing support, empathy, and understanding when a colleague in recovery returns after getting help with alcohol addiction.

Q.  My supervisor went through a period of several weeks where she was drinking during the workday. This was a particularly stressful period as she just wasn’t all there, and her work suffered. Instead of getting fired, the head of our department facilitated getting her the help she needed, and she was gone for an extended period. She is back now, but it’s hard to get back into a work groove and resume a trusting relationship with her. I’m glad she’s better, but what is the best way to work on establishing a healthy working relationship for our team?

A. This must have been a pretty upsetting time for you to see your manager in such a difficult situation, without being aware of or by learning what was causing her behavioral issues on the job. While it was upsetting for you, don’t overlook how much she was dealing with at the time.  It's wonderful that your organization was able to provide the necessary support and employee benefits to your manager to help her deal with her alcohol addiction. Employees who are faced with similar issues don't always have the support of their organizations to get the healthcare benefits and support needed to start the process of recovery. Many employees are terminated based on the impact of alcohol use interfering with work. While there are legal issues that are called into play, getting support, especially early after detection, helps everyone.  

Recognize that your manager may be as uncomfortable as you are on her return to work, knowing that you are aware of what her situation is. You may recognize that she may be embarrassed for her past behavior, her need for treatment, and the need to rebuild a trusting relationship with you and other colleagues.

If your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), call them to learn more about how to deal with this situation. The EAP is not just for individuals in crisis, but for those needing help in situations like this. Everyone can benefit from learning about addiction, especially to understand what you cannot control. Family, friends, and colleagues often end up blaming themselves for causing the addict to use. That is not the case. AA, Alanon, NA, and other support organizations offer educational support materials that are extremely valuable.

Being non-judgmental and understanding of the challenges that she is facing and your ability to be supportive while not intrusive are going to be important for her success and for your ability to rebuild a good working relationship. Let her take the lead in sharing any kind of information she wants  to. Respect her privacy as she navigates this issue. There is no need for you to ask any questions. Welcome her back while recognizing the personal challenges she is facing and move forward with kindness and concern for her well-being.

If you are an employee who is struggling with alcohol or any other type of addiction and recognize yourself reading this (or think this might be you), contacting your (EAP) or your HR department to discuss getting the kinds of support and treatment that you need is in your best interest. Many employees in this kind of situation assume that they're under the radar, when in fact, most often they're not. I encourage you to explore the kinds of help that are available to you. And if you are in HR or a leadership role, you might consider creating and implementing a Recovery-Ready Workplace at your organization to prevent and respond more effectively to substance abuse among employees and develop a recovery-supportive workplace culture.