Addiction and substance use disorder, the medical condition defined by a compulsive use of a substance despite the negative consequences, don’t discriminate. Anyone, regardless of age, race, or occupation, could develop an addiction, including individuals who work within the federal government and might have high-ranking positions.
Researchers recognize that the causes of addiction are complex. On a basic level, addiction is characterized as a complex disease that impacts a person’s brain functioning, which in turn, impacts a person’s behavior.1
Many factors may influence a person’s decision to receive treatment for addiction. For federal employees the fear of losing their job or the embarrassment tied to addiction stigmas might keep them from seeking the treatment they need.
Fortunately, federal laws exist that protect the privacy, confidentiality, and employment status of all employees in the United States.
Federal Employees and Substance Abuse
Addiction can impact federal employees just like people in any other occupation. (For the purpose of this piece, federal employees include members of the armed forces and all other public administration employees.)
Besides the fear of job loss or the stigma that surrounds addiction, the U.S. military’s mandatory random drug testing, lack of confidentiality practices, and zero-tolerance policies may discourage some military service members, who have a substance use disorder, from seeking help.2
Yet, alcohol use disorder, the medical term for alcohol addiction, is the most prevalent form of SUD among military personnel.2 The increased combat exposure experienced by these individuals results in an increased risk of alcohol misuse among active members of the military.2
Additionally, statistics on military personnel and substance use include the following:3
- Less than 1% (0.9% to be exact) of active duty military service members reported misusing prescription painkillers—such as OxyContin/Oxycodone, Percocet, codeine, methadone, hydrocodone, and Vicodin—according to the 2018 Health Related Behaviors Survey: Substance Use Among the Active Component.
- The same survey found that 34% of active duty service members reported binge drinking—defined by the consumption of five or more drinks in a short period of time for men and four or more drinks in the same period for women—within a 30-day timeframe.
- Nearly 10% of active duty service members reported heavy drinking (at least one day each week of binge drinking) within a 30-day period.
Among the managers and executives in the federal, state, and local governments, studies indicate that some may be at risk of developing addiction and substance use disorders.
The most recent data—compiled using statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2014—on substance use disorders and workers in the government/public administration sector indicate:4
- That 5.7% of public administrators have a substance use disorder.
- That 5% of public administrators have an alcohol use disorder.
- That 0.5% of public administrators have an opioid use disorder.
For individuals in the armed forces, there are additional risk factors unique to their experiences. These include:2
- Job stressors, such as deployments and combat exposure.
- Being injured and/or hospitalized because of combat.
- Exposure to violence and trauma.
- Age and gender. Research indicates that young men, in general, are at an increased risk of problematic drinking.
- Post deployment civilian/reintegration challenges.
Can I Be Fired for Drug Use or History of Drug Use?
Legislation exists to protect federal employees (and other employees) from retaliation for seeking help for a co-occurring mental health disorder and/or substance use disorder. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is federal legislation that protects a person’s employment in the event the person needs to take time away from work to seek help for addiction.
More specifically, FMLA protects you if you require substance abuse treatment. Under FMLA, public agencies and private employers (with more than 50 employees) must grant employees—who have worked for them for at least 1 year or 1,250 hours—12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to get help for substance use disorders and related problems.6
Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects workers and their jobs so they can attend rehab while employed. Under the ADA:6
- An employer cannot refuse to hire, fire, or promote an individual because they enrolled in a substance abuse treatment facility or have received help for a substance use disorder in the past.
- It is illegal for an employer to refuse to promote, hire, or fire a person due to a history of addiction or substance abuse.
Furthermore, personal medical information is protected under federal law, and this includes information regarding past and current substance abuse treatment. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects individuals’ medical information and prevents substance abuse and addiction treatment programs from disclosing an individual’s identifying information unless written consent is given by the individual so rehab can remain confidential.7
Mandatory Drug Testing
It’s already been mentioned that active military personnel subject themselves to random drug testing. Service members can face dishonorable discharge and criminal prosecution if they fail a drug test.2
For other government workers, the comprehensive Federal Drug-Free Workplace Program addresses illicit drug use by federal employees.8 In an effort to eliminate illicit drug use in the federal workplace, the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Program identifies safety-sensitive positions subject to random drug testing.8 Specific drug-free workplace programs include the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NCRC), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of State.8 In the DOT, for instance, failing a drug test or registering a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater, means immediate removal from any safety-sensitive function, such as driving a vehicle, and completion of the return-to-duty process with a DOT-qualified substance abuse professional.9
It is important to note that regulations and policies can change and may be different based on the federal agency in which you are employed. Keep informed of the rules and regulations within your branch of employment with the federal government.
Are There Federal Substance Abuse Programs?
Rehab for federal employees and specialized substance abuse treatment programs may be available to you. Under the Code of Federal Regulations, the Office of Personnel Management, along with the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for developing and maintaining suitable prevention, rehabilitation, and treatment services and programs for federal civilian employees with drug and alcohol problems.10
Additionally, each Federal Executive Branch agency has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).11 EAP is a confidential program that allows employees (and managers) to seek help for challenging life situations—such as stress, financial issues, legal issues, and substance use disorders—that may adversely affect their job performance, health, or personal well-being. EAP services can include assessments, counseling, and referrals for additional services like addiction treatment.
If you are struggling with addiction and would like confidential information on treatment options available to you, you can contact American Addiction Centers (AAC) at You will speak to a caring and trained admissions navigator who can help answer questions you may have about the process, the cost, and more.