( Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.)
When Sarah returned to work after missing two days, her supervisor, Nancy, called her into her office. She told Sarah that she had “…been sick a lot and needed to take better care of herself, especially since she had a chronic disease.” Sarah was furious.
Since starting this job one year ago, Sarah had been our of work twice. The first time, shortly after she started, she’d taken a day off for tests and a doctor’s appointment when she had gotten the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The recent absence was due to a virus that was literally making the rounds in her office.
Sarah spent that day thinking of all the things she wanted to say to Nancy to defend herself. She was angry and ready to quit. But when we spoke and she described what happened, she realized that it wasn’t the first time that a co-worker, boss or even a friend had given her advice about what she could do to take care of herself. She realized that since she’d told people that she was living with this chronic illness, they seemed to think that they could tell her how to live her life.
When I asked Sarah if her absence had impacted Nancy directly, she replied that Nancy had filled in for her at several important events. Sarah realized that Nancy had been under pressure about her own ‘deliverables’ to her boss and Sarah’s absence must have put her behind. As Sarah considered what might have provoked Nancy’s comment, she grew calmer.
She was still offended that Nancy would tell her how to care of herself. But now she realized that chronic illness seemed to allow people permission to cross her own set of boundaries. And in some relationships, particularly professional ones, she would be more successful by steering the conversation in the direction she wanted.
Sarah would have a conversation with Nancy to:
- Acknowledge that her absence had meant Nancy fell behind in her own work.
- Express that she felt badly this had happened.
- Ask what she could do to help Nancy catch up.
Finally, Sarah considered how she would handle this in the future. When people told her how to take care of herself or offended her sense of herself regarding this illness, she would focus the conversation on what she can do rather than defend herself against vague accusations. If Nancy (or anyone) talks about how she should take care of herself, Sarah will explain that she doesn’t think that this is relevant to the discussion. She will bring the conversation back to specific actions she can deliver, such as tasks and deliverables.
Just because your health is a challenge, you don’t have to give other people a free pass to tell you what how you should live your life.