Forging a New Career Path with Meaning in Your Post-Addiction World


careers-with-meaningWhen a person struggling with addiction completes treatment, one of the biggest questions is regarding when to start a new job. Holding down employment not only means a source of income; it also means social standing and a form of identity. Forging a new career path with meaning in your post-addiction world may not be easy, but if done properly, it can become the definition of your new, healthy life.

How Important Is Work?

In November 2012, the Social Science & Medicine journal conducted a study on “the importance of full-time work […] on mental health,” and found that people with fulltime jobs reported having the lowest levels of depression and stress; they also tended to eat the healthiest foods and ranked lowest for unhealthy food consumption. People holding down fulltime employment enjoyed the most physical activity and reported the lowest levels of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking. In the middle of the spectrum were the people with part-time jobs; and at the other end were those who were unemployed. People with no jobs struggled with stress, which “significantly mediated the associations […] with frequency of unhealthy eating and physical activity,” as well as the amount of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking.

The importance of having meaningful work has been extensively covered and researched. “Career choice is an ethical choice,” says Forbes magazine. Psychology Today writes of how finding reward and satisfaction in a job is the difference between investing in the work (and the office), and walking away. Fast Companysuggests that “finding meaning at work is more important than feeling happy.” Employees who feel that their job has personal and professional significance report having a job satisfaction rate that is 1.7 times higher than those who don’t, and they are 1.4 times more likely to be engaged in their work duties. Ultimately, employees who have meaningful work “are more than three times as likely to stay with their organization.”

Forging a Meaningful Career Path

For reasons like these, forging a new career path with meaning is an incredibly important component of recovery. Not only will a job help a recovering individual find stability and security in life, but the self-esteem that comes with a productive and satisfying line of work is a huge personal benefit. This is why many treatment facilities and recovery counselors include job skills training as part of their respective services. The behavioral issues caused by substance abuse can undo many social and professional competencies, and a large part of the rehabilitation process entails re-educating the client to make them ready for the job world.

This can take on the form of counselors working with you to identify a pre-recovery work history to determine what lines of work would be a good start for you when you finish treatment. The reality of your past drug abuse means that some jobs are off-limits. The service industry is a good example of this; working in a bar or restaurant requires constant exposure and access to alcoholic beverages, and for a person who has invested a lot of hard work in weaning off addictive substances, this is a bad combination. Similarly, the work in the service industry is often mentally and physically grueling, compelling many in that profession to use drugs.

While there are many legitimate reasons to seek employment in the service industry – many people enjoy the contact with the general public, the challenge of professional cooking and tending bar, or the adrenaline rush of the intense work – a person in recovery needs to ease back into a professional mindset. Being fresh out of treatment, many do not yet have this perspective; in fact, they may be so eager to hit the ground running that their initial ideas for employment may not be conducive to their long-term recovery.

Additionally, some employers are legally allowed to turn down candidates who have a past history of substance abuse (and/or a criminal record). Jobs that require some degree of security clearance, or where the employer can prove that past substance abuse (and/or criminal history) could place the potential employee (and the business itself) in a position of legal liability, would obviously not be a good fit for a person in recovery.

Learning Job Skills in Recovery

This is where recovery counselors and job coaches come into play. Having a better understanding of the various dynamics of addiction recovery and the job market, they can guide the client toward the bigger picture of finding meaningful work. This process can entail some basic professional development, working on the client’s resume and cover letter, job interview coaching and role-playing, and other training skills to make the client an attractive hire for a compatible position and industry.

During the rehabilitation phase of the overall treatment plan, therapists will work individually with clients to create a customized approach to the issues they will have to face in the outside world. Such issues include how to have healthy relationships with friends and potential romantic/sexual interests, and also how to function as part of a workforce. This can cover sessions to increase awareness of interpersonal interactions that may influence employment, such as how to know the boundaries of appropriate conversations and behaviors at work or how to improve personal management abilities, such as organization, time management, and knowing when to say “no” to increased responsibilities. New hires and people in recovery tend to be very enthusiastic about their new jobs, and it is important for people to learn how to avoid becoming stressed and burned out because they took on too much work.
skills-trainingThis is an important balance for anyone to strike; for a person in recovery, it becomes even more significant. The past history of substance abuse suggests difficulty in exercising judgement, and Psych Central writes of how the psychological effects of addictive substances can damage the decision-making centers of the brain. Rehabilitation and counseling go a long way in helping individuals restore that equilibrium, but real-world scenarios of stress – like an argument in a relationship or accepting too much work – can undo the hard work of recovery. Extra professional responsibilities are challenging at best; at worst, they can create the perfect catalyst for relapsing.

This is where the personal management skills training of rehab will help. Many of the lessons in recovery focus around helping the client know their limits, and the same applies to professional situations. Topics like time management and finding (and maintaining) the right work-life balance train the client to find their feet as a new employee in a new job, in a potentially new industry, and also plant the seeds for a meaningful career to emerge down the road.

Part of the personal management training will be on what to do about stress. The American Psychological Association writes that on-the-job stress is a universal phenomenon, one that affects every employee regardless of mental health and medical history. For people in recovery, however, stress at the workplace takes on additional connotations; the threat of relapse is never far. This is why rehab counselors will advise against applying for jobs that have inherently high levels of stress, like service industry jobs, law enforcement, medicine, law, etc. However, stress is a normal part of life (and working life), and learning how to deal with stress is a vital coping skill in and of itself. In fact, “stress can be a very good thing,” writes The Huffington Post, noting that stress can be a source of positive energy, and, if used properly, “can help you achieve fulfillment, health, and happiness.”

But this is easier said than done, especially for people who have to be on guard against their stress leading to the negative thought patterns that herald a relapse. For this reason, the personal management skills taught by a rehab counselor can make the difference between a bad day at work becoming a binge and a challenging day at work creating the template for a meaningful career path.

How to Re-Enter the Job Market

People who have struggled with substance abuse in their past have legitimate concerns about going back into the job market. They may have been fired from their last place of work because of their addictions, and the time spent in treatment will be difficult to account for on a resume or during a job interview. Fortunately, there are a number of things these individuals can do to test the waters of having a working life before making a commitment to a fulltime job.

An example of this would be to find work through a temp agency. Since the work on offer will be for the shorter term, and often with reduced responsibilities, temp agencies tend to be more understanding regarding issues with past employment history. They also offer a wide variety of jobs, so individuals can find a line of work that is both of interest and compatible with recovery requirements (low stress, time off to attend meetings, etc.). Monster.com adds that in the event a job posting does not work out, good temp agencies make it a point to offer feedback and suggestions for improvement to the employee. Having this information can be very useful in helping the person (and the recovery counselor) grow an evolving professional profile.

Another approach for a person looking to forge a new career path might be to find a volunteer opportunity. Individuals can find opportunities they are passionate about, with the tradeoff that such gigs do not usually pay anything. However, they do offer vital onsite skill development, and employers like to read that the candidates they are interviewing have altruistic interests and pursuits outside the office.

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Internships and Freelance Work

A third option might be to look for internships. If you have a good idea of what you would like to do as a career but are not yet ready to make the commitment to a fulltime job, ask the employer if they have an internship program. As with volunteering, you are unlikely to get a paycheck for your work, but the experience could be invaluable, and your potential manager could hire you if your performance is up to par. Even if the internship does not lead to a paid position, it will be very useful to put on a resume.

Working for yourself is another possibility. “Freelancing is dominating the workforce,” according to The Next Web, and advancements in computing have made it such that entire jobs can be done on a work-from-home basis. While this has obvious advantages, freelance work can be unpredictable, with intense periods of activity followed by long episodes of downtime, which would also mean making less money. A rehab counselor might have concerns about the lack of structure and discipline in the freelance line of work, but the myriad possibilities offered by working for yourself might allow you time to find your feet before taking on bigger responsibilities.
search-for-itThe U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration offers a federal apprenticeship program, which matches people who want to train for a trade with more than 25,000 employers across the country, each one offering training to people willing to be an apprentice. This covers trades like being a dental assistance, carpenter, chef, electrician, construction craftsman, and dozens of other vocations. For a person who wants to learn something new and explore new avenues in life, apprenticeship programs might be the way to carve a new path.

The Labor Department also has a “One Stop Career” center, where people in recovery can connect to a network of national career centers and nonprofit agencies that work with potential employees who are coming out of addiction. The employers who sign up to be part of the program are familiar with the challenges facing people in recovery (including things like having a past criminal history) and will provide essential resources to qualifying applicants to help them stay on track.

Colleges that have continuing education or job training programs are another option for people in recovery to develop skills for a specific line of work. The training on offer might be more comprehensive than what a rehab coach can offer, but there may be a price tag associated with this option. Individuals might be able to qualify for reduced tuition on the basis of having a disability (since past drug addiction is legally recognized as a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act). Local job centers also have job training programs, sometimes providing basic classes for free.

Talking about Addiction in the Interview

For many, one of the hardest steps in forging a meaningful career path after addiction is how to bring up – or how to avoid – the topic of past substance abuse. Lying in a job interview is never easy and never a good idea; deception can be easily unmasked (and could be legal justification for termination), and the stress of lying and keeping up lies does terrible things to mental health.

There are different ways to overcome this challenge. One might be to not bring up the period of time where you were under the influence of drugs and couldn’t hold down work because you were in treatment. If there is no option but to address your past addiction, be honest about it; don’t say any more about it than needs to be said (a recovery coach will help you walk this line); assure the hiring manager that your treatment is complete, you’re still engaged with the responsibilities of recovery, and that you are prepared to submit to random drug testing.
get-that-jobAnother option could be to bring up the issue of your former addiction early in the process. Mentioning your time as an addict and your treatment for the problem allows you to dictate the tone and pace of that part of the interview and gives you a chance to explain what happened on your own terms. Your interviewer might appreciate your honesty, and this might bode well for your prospects. A good way to put a positive spin on disclosing your substance abuse would be to talk about what the process taught you, how you’ve improved as a person, and how the experience has made you a better candidate for the position you’re interviewing for.

Neither option is easy; both have their own advantages and risks. Your rehab coach or therapist can help you determine which approach will work best for you (and for the job you want), and work with you accordingly.

How to Use Your Story to Your Benefit

As with any sensitive subject, talking about past addictions are not easy; that is why they should not be mentioned on your resume or cover letter. If you introduce the subject during the interview, you have more control over the direction of the conversation than you would if you wrote about it. If a job application requires you to disclose former substance abuse (and employment or legal problems that arose as a result of the abuse), do so honestly, and add a note that you will explain in more detail during the interview.

The site Monster.com sums it up this way: Do not lie (under any circumstances), but if the hiring manager doesn’t specifically ask about substance abuse problems in the past, don’t give out more information than what they need to make a decision about you. Further to that point, if you are asked, keep the explanation short. Don’t make excuses for your behavior, and try to focus on the positive future ahead of you.

Any job interview can be stressful; for a person in recovery, there are added factors to take into consideration. Work closely with your recovery coach, therapist, sponsor, and anyone else you trust to help prepare for the interview. They will show you how you can believe in your own transformation, how you’ve grown, how you’ve developed the necessary skills for the job, and how you are far more accountable now than you were during your days as a user. With honesty and enthusiasm, you can show a potential employer that your days of addiction are behind you, and that you are ready to take a big step on your new career path.

Consistency and Preparation

According to FlexJobs, keeping a few other things in mind when deciding “whether or not to open up during job interviews after addiction recovery.” The thinking points include:

  • Being consistent: Whatever you tell your employer has to be consistent with what’s on your resume and cover letter, and what they can find out online. More and more employers are using social media to screen potential candidates, and CareerBuilder cautions that over 25 percent of employers have discovered online content that has led them to reprimand, or even fire, an employee. If there is potentially damaging information related to your past substance abuse that an online search will reveal, you will have to ensure that whatever you tell your interviewer about it will pass the smell test.
  • Being an example: There is still a great deal of misunderstanding about substance abuse and mental health issues, and it is entirely possible that you might be the first person in recovery the interviewer has ever met. This could be a chance to educate them about the reality of addiction, and also the success and power of recovery, and how that power makes you a good candidate for the position. This is a conversation that should be practiced with your recovery coach before trying it out in a real-world situation, especially in a potentially high-pressure situation like a job interview.
  • Being prepared: Unfortunately, not all conversations about your past substance abuse will end well. A Johns Hopkins study showed that many people still have very negative impressions about substance abusers, and even your presence as a person in recovery may not be enough to stop prejudice and willful ignorance about the reality of how addiction works. Accepting this is one of the hardest parts of recovery, and sometimes, the only way to win this particular battle is to not fight it at all.
  • Knowing the law: As a person who has experienced drug addiction in the past, you do have a legal disability, and you are entitled to certain accommodations and protections as a result. Your recovery coach and an employment lawyer trained in working with clients in recovery can help you negotiate terms of employment that allow you to take time off work to attend therapy meetings, so you can balance commitments to your job and to yourself.
  • Knowing yourself: Knowing who you are, and what your limits are, is a big part of addiction recovery. In fact, many of your therapy sessions during treatment will be focused on this subject. In a practical context, this may mean knowing to say “no” to a good job because it is not the right thing for you at the present time; the professional demands may be too much for you to handle at this point in your recovery, or there may be too high a risk of being exposed to the relapse triggers you were told to avoid. It may be heartbreaking to have to decline an otherwise attractive job because of the reality of recovery, but the act of doing so represents significant growth and maturity and signals that the decisions you make are based on your long-term wellbeing, not simply short-term gains.

Forging a productive, rewarding, and fulfilling life in recovery is not easy, and finding a meaningful career within this framework is no exception. However, it is certainly possible; and with coaching, patience, honesty, and belief in yourself, your past addiction will not prevent you from finding the best line of work for yourself.

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About The Contributor

Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers

The editorial staff of Sunrise House is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More


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