Is Talking About Your Alcoholism Ever a Good Idea?

Alcohol addiction is a personal struggle that can be hard to talk about, especially in certain settings. Talking about alcoholism with anyone can be intimidating, but it may be even more so in the workplace, doctor’s office, or in certain social situations.

How do you know when you should disclose your history and when it is more beneficial to protect your privacy?

Talking About Alcoholism in the Workplace

You are not required to disclose a history of addiction in your workplace, including before you get the job. If you are considering talking about alcoholism in your workplace, you have certain legal protections.

The official diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD) is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects people with disabilities, including alcohol use disorder, from discrimination and ensures they have the same opportunities and rights as everyone else.1

AUD is considered a disability because it affects the brain and neurological functions, and it can impair or seriously limit one or more major life activities.

As part of the ADA, reasonable accommodation for disabilities are available. However, in most workplaces, reasonable accommodation paperwork is processed by the HR department or a third party, so even if you request an accommodation, you do not have to disclose your history to your coworkers, direct boss, or others.

However, you may make disclosures that feel right for you, such as talking about alcoholism to set clearer boundaries and expectations in a workplace where alcohol is often served.

Disclosing Alcohol Addiction in the Hiring Process

The ADA protects people with disabilities during the application, interview, and hiring process, as well as on the job. When you apply for new job, you are not required to disclose your alcohol addiction at any time during the hiring process.1

The ADA prohibits all disability-related questions and medical inquiries, even if they are related to the position. However, if an interviewer illegally asks you a question, it is recommended not to lie. You can always file a complaint with the ADA following the interview.1

Instead of lying, consider this hypothetical response:

  • Illegal question: Have you ever been treated for mental health problems or addiction? Are these gaps in your resume time spent in intensive treatment?
  • Honest answer: I have previously taken time away from work to receive help for a medical condition, but I’m currently in good health and excited to join the team!

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While questions about mental health and addiction are not permitted during the interview process because these conditions are protected under the ADA, employers can ask about the use of alcohol or drugs as the answer to this question would not reveal a disability. Legally, employers can ask if you have ever used, but they cannot ask about the extent of use.

An employer can also ask if you would need ADA reasonable accommodation, but not which condition would require those accommodations.

Asking for Accommodations and Medical Leave

Because you are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you do not have to disclose your alcohol addiction with your employer at all. However, if you need any accommodations related to alcohol use disorder, you will need to disclose it and provide paperwork from a physician confirming your diagnosis and need for an ADA reasonable accommodation.1

However, many mid-size to large companies have a third party process this paperwork to protect your privacy. This allows your medical leave claim to be evaluated without the risk of any discrimination based on a disability like addiction. If this is the case, you would let your employer know that you need accommodations or leave, but all of the paperwork for these measures would be handled by another specialized company.

An example of an ADA reasonable accommodation for a person with alcohol use disorder would be the need for a flexible schedule. You can ask your employer for a flexible schedule so that you can attend counseling appointments, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or medical appointments related to your alcohol addiction.2

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If you need to request medical leave for addiction recovery treatment, you are not required to disclose what the medical treatment is for unless you are requesting leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).3

If you otherwise qualify for FMLA leave with your employer, you can request up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for alcohol addiction treatment.3

FMLA leave can only be taken for substance use treatment if the treatment is provided or referred by a healthcare provider. While you can request FMLA leave for alcohol addiction treatment, you cannot request FMLA for symptoms of alcohol use.4 In other words, you must be ready to enter treatment and have a bed waiting for you in an alcohol addiction treatment facility as soon as you stop working in order to take this type of medical leave.

Talking About Alcoholism With Medical Providers

According to research, most patients recall being asked about alcohol use during a health screening with their primary care provider.5 While you aren’t required by law to answer honestly, if you don’t disclose the true extent of your alcohol use, it can affect your medical care.

Many medications interact with alcohol and if you have surgery or a medical procedure, the team needs to know about your alcohol use for safety reasons.

In some cases, you may feel it isn’t necessary to disclose prior alcohol or substance use if you are abstinent. However, this information can still be valuable to your healthcare team. If they know that you have struggled with addiction in the past, they can refrain from prescribing you any medications with a high potential for addiction.

It may seem like certain medical professionals do not need to know about your alcohol use like optometrists, dentists, dermatologists, and other specialists. Sometimes this is true.

However, you should always consider disclosing if you are being prescribed a new medication or undergoing any procedure. For example, a dermatologist might prescribe you isotretinoin (Accutane) for acne. You should avoid alcohol completely or seriously limit it while taking this medication.6 Your dermatologist may prescribe an alternative if you currently need alcohol addiction treatment.

It is safe to share your alcohol use history with your medical providers. All providers are required to keep your medical history confidential. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) protects patient privacy.7

Disclosing Alcohol Addiction in Everyday Life

Disclosing alcohol use disorder in your daily life is a personal decision. You get to decide who has the privilege of this information and who doesn’t. Talking about alcoholism can be hard, even with friends and family.

You may choose to talk about addiction only with the people who you are close to who make you feel safe. On the other hand, you may choose to be open about your alcoholism to avoid triggers such as being offered alcohol at a family gathering.

Weigh the pros and cons of telling certain people in your life. Some questions you may ask yourself include:

  • What is the benefit of talking about alcoholism with this person? Are there any possible repercussions?
  • If I do not disclose my alcohol use disorder, am I more likely to be exposed to alcohol use?
  • If I disclose, would this person use my history to damage my relationships, career, etc.?
  • Would it be more challenging to disclose later if I do not disclose now?
  • If I do not disclose, will I have to lie about attending AA meetings, therapy sessions, living in a sober house, etc.?

An AA sponsor, therapist, or trusted loved one can help you talk through decisions to disclose your history in specific areas of your life, including specific social settings, your religious congregation, clubs and activities, and so on.

If you need treatment for alcohol use disorder, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to our addiction treatment specialists.

Resources

  1. ADA National Network. (2022). The ADA, Addiction, Recovery, and Employment.
  2. ADA National Network. (2022). Are Alcoholics Protected by the ADA?
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020, August 04). Federal Laws and Regulations.
  4. U.S. Department of Labor. Family and Medical Leave Act Advisor.
  5. O’Donnell, A., Hanratty, B., Schulte, B., & Kaner, E. (2020, April 22). Patients’ experiences of alcohol screening and advice in primary care: a qualitative study. BMC Family Practice, 21(68).
  6. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018, August 15). Isotretinoin. MedlinePlus.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, September 14). Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

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