For most of us living with a debilitating chronic health condition, talking about it is one of the most difficult parts of this life. I’ve written frequently on this topic from various angles and was excited when I came across this headline in a recent issue of Money, ” What to say at work if you’re dealing with a serious chronic illness.” But as I read, I wanted more, starting with the headlines. Are some chronic illnesses more “serious” than others and does that matter here? I think “debilitating“, which means to impair strength (unlike disabling which means unable to do the task), is a better qualifier. Do you think that words matter, especially when describing something that isn’t visible?
The truth is that I think most of the content misses the mark but it provides a context to talk about this here. The author identifies 7 things to consider and rather than reprint the article, click to read), here are the bullet points from the piece — with my 2 cents:
- Get Out In Front of It: Yes… but. Early in my career, I made a big point of this but I’ve since learned you have to be ready. It’s tempting for many to talk about this when first diagnosed. But in all likelihood, you have no real idea of what this actually means to you and your performance. Unless this has an immediate impact on your work, give yourself some time to see how things go for you. On the other hand, I agree that it isn’t wise to wait until you’re under performing and have lost the trust of those around you. Search for the middle ground.
- Start with Your Supervisor and HR Dept. I don’t agree. These are two different types of conversations. Your supervisor has to know, particularly if illness impacts your performance. If you don’t think you’ll get a supportive response, start with a trusted colleague or ally to get the input and feedback. From what I’ve seen, particularly in smaller organizations, HR focuses primarily on benefits and lack good understanding of the ADA. And, are you at the point where you want to discuss this issue based on your legal rights? Once you invoke ADA, people smell law suits and make assumptions about your intentions that you might not want.
- Do Your Homework. Maybe because this was written for MONEY, it focuses on taking leave and benefits. This research is important although it might not be a top a priority until you think you will need it.
- Consider Getting Legal Help. There are very good points here but if you hope to keep the job you’re in, tred lightly. If you feel more comfortable knowing your legal rights, get the advice you need but keep it as a last resort. Once you invoke ADA and go this route, you easily alienate those who want to think you’re still on the ‘team’. I’ve spoken with too many who, after quoting their lawyer at work, found that the conversations took a more polarizing tone than ever before.
- Ponder What Might Make Your Job Easier. Ouch. Do you want your job to be “easier” (which makes you sound like a slouch) or do you want to be able to do it while living with impairments? Furthermore, this should be at the top of the list, first thing you do, #1, especially if you’re discussing your health because you need to find different ways to get your job done. You don’t have to discuss ideas for work-arounds in the first conversation about your situation but it’s wise to be prepared if the topic comes up. When you take the initiative to problem solve, you show you’re a team player who also lives with a health challenge. Any manager would prefer to know that you’re looking for solutions rather than dumping it in their lap. And, you make it clear that your health is not your defining characteristic.
- Keep Your Doc in the Loop. I find that most people overlook this because they focus on their health, not work, when talking to their healthcare provider. But I learned years ago from a disability lawyer how important your doctor’s records can be. Make sure you tell you doctor what you are doing to work-around your health issues and it gets recorded. A client who hadn’t done this was denied certain expensive ‘work arounds’ on the grounds that she’d been able to do her job and lacked the evidence to show the hoops she’d gone through to do her job well.
- Think About What to Share With Colleagues. This should also be at the top of the list (maybe #2). It’s is a critical aspect of being able to continue to work, especially if you have internal and external colleagues or clients who would be affected by changes. And, I’d suggest you skip leaning on anyone’s shoulder. Remember this is work and even good friends grow to resent what can feel like whining when there are deadlines to be met.
Talking about your health and what you need can be a critical investment in your ability to keep working if you choose to and your overall well being. If some of your questions were not adequately addressed here, check out my Booklet, Are you Talking?, part of my Guidebook Series or my free Article, 7 Big Ideas for Regaining Power in the Workplace.