Posted by:
Jessica Dodell-Feder

Jessica Dodell-Feder

December 22, 2014


Illness at the Office

Everything’s going well: Your career is on track, you love where you live, and you actually have a love life. Then something terrible happens—you’re diagnosed with a serious illness. Or maybe you’ve been living with a condition for years, but it starts to get worse. Likely, you’re headed down a long road, hopefully toward recovery. Until then, how—and when—do you let your employer know you’re sick?

For women in good health, issues such as medical leave and disability legislation rarely come to mind. But for those who have been diagnosed with a debilitating disease such as cancer, HIV, lupus, or even depression or bipolar disorder, these are important concerns. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to inform your boss of your situation. Here are some tips on how to start the conversation.

Know your rights. Before you approach your employer, it helps to be familiar with the laws that affect workers with serious medical conditions. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protection from discrimination for people diagnosed with illnesses and/or disabilities. It also requires employers to provide you with “reasonable accommodations,” such as shorter work hours or reduced tasks, so that you can keep your job, even in a slightly diminished capacity. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers must grant you up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with a serious health condition. And don’t forget that your medical information should never play into your employer’s decisions regarding salary and promotions.

Don’t speak too soon. The time to share your condition with your employer comes only when you need to take advantage of an employee health benefit or you are looking for protection under the ADA, FMLA, or another state or federal law, says Pamela Wolf, an employment law analyst for CCH, a human-resources research firm. “Ask yourself if there is a legitimate reason why your employer needs this information,” she suggests. For example, will you need to take a leave of absence? If not, and you anticipate that you’ll be working as usual, feel free to let everything stay on the down low.

Be wary of who you tell. “Generally, an employee is under no obligation to voluntarily disclose to her employer information about a medical condition,” says Pamela. With that in mind, she advises operating only on a need-to-know basis: First tell just your boss; then, if necessary, HR. To protect your privacy, have the discussion in a private setting and avoid over-sharing with co-workers. “Co-workers do not need to keep your medical information confidential,” says Pamela. “While our society has come a long way, there is still an unfortunate amount of stigma attached to certain conditions, and there is a risk that your information will be viewed negatively or passed on to others.” After all, office gossip is the last thing you need.

Focus on what’s important. Yes, your job provides you with a salary, kooky co-workers, and a place to call home from 9 to 5. But nothing—not even that major project for your firm’s most demanding client—ranks above your health. Spend the majority of your time focused on getting better, whether that means following a physical-therapy program prescribed by your doctor or just basking in some R & R after a difficult treatment session. If you need to take an extra day off, do it. The better you feel, the more you’ll be able to accomplish once you get back to the grind.