Pearl #10: Relapse is a Part of Recovery

Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey” will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years.

Relapse is a Part of Recovery

As an organization we’ve recently had to challenge our drug and alcohol policy, and along with that, our organization’s attitude toward relapse. The experience has been humbling, scary, and illuminating in turns. The issue arose because more and more frequently we were hiring women whose sobriety was recent and tenuous, in some instances just a few weeks old. Often these same women would relapse, and, based on our old policy, would be immediately terminated from the program. Sometimes the drug use came to our attention during a routine, random drug test, and sometimes because a woman was absent for several days. Regardless of how we found out, women were released from the program without further discussion. Likewise, it had always been our policy that when a woman left the program, she was not invited to return. For years we had maintained the attitude that women received one chance to complete the Bean Project program and if the program didn’t work for her that one time, we would make room for someone else. 

Changing a Policy as Time Changes

But as the occurrence of relapse with the women we hired was increasing, we found ourselves wondering whether there might be other solutions that wouldn’t feel so punitive. We wondered what it said about us, an organization that is about second chances, if we weren’t willing to give a second chance ourselves.  

Our attitudes and practices began to change slowly, in some instances keeping in communication with women who’d left because of relapse and inviting them to return when they felt ready to continue with the program, clean and sober. Becoming more flexible in this regard just felt right, but it also forced us to look at our longstanding policy. Then, while we were at it, we realized it was important to consider if automatic termination because of a positive drug test was best and if not, what might be better.  

And still, we are an employer. As an employer, workplace safety must be foremost in our minds. A tolerance for drug use might lead to women coming to work impaired. Ultimately, we knew this would not be safe for anyone. Additionally, the women in the program told us that they appreciate that we conduct drug testing, that it makes them feel like the Bean Project is a safe place while they are working on maintaining their own sobriety. 

How Do We Account for Safety and Second Chances?

We took all of these things into consideration as we reviewed our drug and alcohol policy. We started by becoming better educated. We invited presenters to all-staff meetings from the Harm Reduction Center; received Mental Health First Aid training to help us identify signs of drug use, among other mental health issues; and we learned from an expert in addiction studies about the effects of drug use on the brain, theories about why people use and about relapse. We benchmarked our policy against peer social enterprises across the country. We consulted an HR specialist and an employment attorney, all in an effort to ensure that we created both policy and processes that keep everyone safe and allow for the sometimes non-linear nature of addiction recovery. 

The more we learned, the more we realized that we needed to redraw our line in the sand. That our former policy, while more straightforward, did not begin to accomplish what we hope to do every day – meet women where they are and work with them to create new lives.  

A Policy with a New Approach

Today, we approach drug use differently. We still drug test shortly after each group is hired and add to the group others who are selected randomly for testing. This includes permanent staff members, who are now added to the pool for testing. We have added an Employee Assistance Program to our employee benefits. When a drug test is returned showing drug use, we take a different approach. We have a conversation with the employee that is focused on safety in the workplace, emphasizing that coming to work impaired is not safe for anyone. Then, we offer the services provided by the EAP and encourage them to access these services. Rather than a punitive session that results in automatic termination, our hope is that the conversation is shaped into a coaching session that will result in a more positive outcome – future clean drug tests. Any employee with a positive test will be tested again in the future, and a positive test the second time may lead to termination of employment.  

No Change is Linear

This solution feels better to me. It allows for the idea that change of any kind isn’t linear. It acknowledges that sometimes relapse is a part of recovery. It gives our employees the space to make mistakes and recover from them. When we see life change as a straight line, we set ourselves up for disappointment. I know from my own experience that often the best lessons are learned the hard way, through failure or setbacks, and I know that sometimes a little space to recover it just what is needed.  

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