Returning to work and Potential Relapse

Returning to work

Fitness for re-entry to work is considered by the Board when the nurse demonstrates stability in recovery and minimal risk for harm when returning to practice. The following are modified guidelines offered by the Idaho Board of Nursing (IBN, 2012)

Potential for relapse

Adjusting to life after treatment can be difficult. Non-compliance and relapse after treatment are very common occurrences. Relapse is the return to use of a substance after a period of abstinence.

Community aftercare programs are helpful for recovering alcoholics and drug users once they return to work. Support programs like Alcohol Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous can help keep nurses on the path to avoiding alcohol and drug abuse.

Kelly (2010; 2009) reported on a long term study of participants in AA and formal treatment programs. At the eight year follow-up, 46% who chose formal treatment were abstinent while 49% who attended AA only were abstinent. Individuals who attended both formal programs and AA had the highest abstinence rates.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that drug addiction after treatment has relapse rate between 40% and 60%. Fortunately, alternative to discipline programs for nurses are more effective. For example, the Florida alternative to discipline program (IPN) reports a relapse rate of about 9% for SUD.

Relapses occur most frequently during the first few years after detoxification but can occur at any time, particularly after stressful events. Some state board of nurse examiners require random testing of urine and blood even after the nurse returns to work. Some may require written self-reports.

It is advised individuals with drug and alcohol addiction avoid contact with those with whom they have participated in drug use and alcohol consumption during the recovery phase of their illness (Whitney, 2015). On occasion, persons with one addiction can then become involved in another addiction, like gambling.

Nurses treated for mental illness can also experience relapse. Nurses who have mental health issues are subject to similar barriers to treatment adherence as the general psychiatric population. The side effects of antipsychotic medications are highly prevalent and significantly associated with lower adherence (DiBonaventura, 2012). According to Velligan et al (2009) only 51% of prescribed medications are taken by patients with serious mental health disorders. Nonadherence can be due to side effects, particularly weight gain and sedation and the belief the medications are no longer needed.

With regard to nurses impaired by physical disabilities; there are reports of nurses failing to use assistive device, e.g., hearing aids. However, there is a significant lack of published research in this area of nursing and occupational sciences.

Avoiding relapse will be a lifelong endeavor for our affected colleagues. Co-workers and family members can be supportive by:

    1. Accepting SUD as a chronic illness rather than a personality flaw.
    2. Remembering that stress, cues (people, places, things, and moods) linked to the SUD experience, and access to drugs are the most common triggers for relapse.
    3. Investigating the pharmacology of medications used to interfere with these triggers to help impaired nurses sustain their recovery.

However, nurse colleagues must avoid enabling an impaired nurse by covering for them. It is the obligation of the professional nurse to always protect the patient and report any relapse or behavior of a colleague that could be harmful to patients.



DiBonaventura M, Gabriel S, Dupclay L, Gupta S, Kim E (2012) A patient perspective of the impact of medication side effects on adherence: results of a cross-sectional nationwide survey of patients with schizophrenia. BMC Psychiatry 2012 12:20. Accessed 9/3/2017

Idaho Board of Nursing. THE PROGRAM FOR RECOVERING NURSES. (2012). Accessed on 9/3/2012


Kelly, J. K. (2010). The role of mutual-help group in extending the framework of treatment. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Kelly, J.F., Magill,M. & Stout, R.L. (2009). How do people recover from alcohol dependence? A systematic review of the research on mechanisms of behavior change in Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction Research and Theory 17(3), 236–259, 2009.

Velligan, D. I., Weiden, P.J., Sajatovic, M., Scott, J., Carpenter, D., Ross, R. et al. (2009). The expert consensus guideline series: adherence problems in patients with serious and persistent mental illness. J Clin Psychiatry. 70 (4), 1-46.

Whitney, B. (2015). The Break-Up: Leaving Your Drinking Buddies Behind. Retrieved on Sept 7, 2017 from