WWYD – Chronic Illness

Recently had an email exchange with an acquaintance that left me a little frustrated. This friend is in a highly paid, well respected work environment with major responsibilities. She lives and breathes her career. She is married but has no kids, yet.

She has been recently diagnosed with a chronic ailment that is not life threatening but if she doesn’t take care of herself it could severely debilitate her. She is of the opinion that to let her superiors at work know is tantamount to giving in her resignation. She feels she will lose all respectability and credibility and will be treated as an invalid and encouraged to take disability.

I feel that her superiors should know that something is going on, so that they can be sympathetic when she has a flare up or has to take time of for tests or treatments. Perhaps they can accommodate her work needs better so that she can be more effective.

If I were a boss I would want to know what was going on with my employee.

WWYD in her situation?

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  1. fille says:

    tricky question.

    It is true that many employers react very negatively to chronic illnesses in employees.

    So in my view, she is right to “play it safe” and not say anything.

    The problem is: you are not her employer, and you do not know who and how her employer is…

    She might be suprised in a positive way, but odds are that she is right…

    Especially in the US, where there is virtually no protection against firing.

  2. shorty says:

    It’s tough with these kind of situations. Some bosses are super nice, and if you worked somewhere long enough will be more than accomodating. Others aren’t. They don’t care and don’t want to understand what is going on, they only care that the work gets done – and if the employee can’t do it, they will find one that will.

    My mother in law is ill, and my sister in law has had to take a bit of work time to go and tend to her. They docked her pay. After 20 years of working there, barely taking sick days, they docked her pay. This is the reality of the work place. It isn’t always easy to tell the boss you will be needing time to deal with an illness.

    Wishing your friend health.

  3. Having been pregnant in the workplace, I understand where this lady is coming from. Although I’ve only ever felt supported during my pregnancies in the workplace, I think it’s natural for any lady who’s pregnant and working to get that surge of fear about telling an employer. Although it wasn’t a founded fear in my case, I think many, many people receive lots of discrimination in exchange for being honest about various medical conditions, including pregnancy and, it sounds like, this thing your acquaintance is dealing with, that could require someone to slow down at times.

    People start to look at you differently, whether consciously or subconsciously. Without meaning to, they start to count on you less and less to get things done, or to be able to devote time and energy to your work. When you’re pregnant, it’s not permanent, because the condition ends in nine months. For your acquaintance, it sounds like it will never end.

    I think as her employer I would want to know about it so that I could exercise understanding and flexibility. But how could she possibly know how her employer will react? Her career is important to her. I Can understand her not wanting to do anything to jeopardize everything she’s worked so hard for.

    There’s no easy answer, obviously – but maybe someone else in her workplace has been in a similar situation? How have *their* careers been affected? I’m afraid it’s going to ultimately be about weighing the risks and benefits of telling her employer, and making the best decision she can without knowing the outcome, both short- and longterm.

  4. Lisa says:

    It really does depend on the culture of the firm – but she is right. There is absolutely no sympathy in business for a “flair up”. If someone needs to take time for tests it better be convenient for the company to do so. At best its a “CLM” career limiting move and at worst its effectively handing in your resignation.

    Now if she wants to change her life and career …great. Sometimes illness comes to us for that reason. But if she wants everything to remain as close to her normal as possible? Say nothing.

  5. RubyV says:

    As someone with a chronic illness who worked a number of investment banking firms, I completely get where she is coming from. Admitting you have a chronic illness can be career killing, even if you work through the symptoms and only rarely take time off. I often worked 60-90 hrs a week, but if I needed time off, I got shit for “slacking”, especially if it meant I needed to go home and rest.

    There were many days of hiding in the ladies room to inject my migraine meds and pray that I could ride out the vomiting. If I needed sunglasses to ride out the light issues I got reprimanded. No one cared that I was trying everything I could so that I could get 16 hours of work in. All they cared about was that I could need time off.

  6. tesyaa says:

    As a supervisor, I was required to attend a seminar on dealing with work-life issues that could potentially arise with the employees who report to me. The upshot is that she’s not required to tell anyone anything, but supervisors should encourage employees to reach out to employee assistance programs if they are undergoing issues that may affect their work. This is more for the company’s protection, believe it or not. If workers become ill or injured on the job, the company is concerned about potential lawsuits. (For example: a diabetic employee who goes into shock might sue if he wasn’t given break time in which to take his medicine). I’m talking about a large corporation; in a small business, the pressures might be different and an illness might very well be held against her, unfortunately.

  7. mrsmelissasg says:

    I was diagnosed with a chronic illness while out on disability and there was a management change shortly after I came back. So the executive level staff still knew what was going on, but my direct supervisors didn’t and they made it very difficult for me. It was nice to know I had someone in a power position who had seen a physician’s note and been kept apprised of my disability and then slow return to full time work.
    Based on personal experience, my suggestion would be to not tell an immediate supervisor but to get her physician to write a letter indicating that at this point she is still capable of doing her work but delineating what she may need to do in order to maintain that which she can give to an HR or corporate wellness person.

  8. G6 says:

    Sad as it may seem, I think she is making the right decision.
    She knows her work environment better than anyone and if she feel that there will be repercussions, then there may very well be…
    Let her decide.

  9. Baila says:

    I think what one of the commenters said about knowing the “culture of the firm” is very true. When my daughter was ill a few years ago, my husband worked for a very big corporate investment firm. For the first few weeks, when it was touch-and-go, they gave him carte blanche to be at the hospital and he got paid in full (it was about 3 weeks total that he was in and out of work). I’m not sure many firms like that would have been so kind.

    On the other hand, said firm went belly-up six months later and was the beginning of what became one of the biggest economic crises the world has ever known. Hmmm.

  10. I will say that when Anth let work know his illness was going to impact his job, they did force him into disability – they, of course, also told him to get a Masters and they’d move him out of the field and to a desk job. Instead, he came home one day and that was it. We had no insurance, nothing and I was in school. It was pretty wretched. I know at my job they’d have me out of here in a heartbeat if they even had an inkling I was contemplating aliyah. An illness? Even faster. They told my coworker who had to have his eye removed but came back after that perhaps he should consider PT work.

  11. Tzipporah says:

    Her choice also suggests that she may be in denial about the full reality of her illness. Not unusual, when first dealing with a chronic illness diagnosis. She doesn’t need to tell employers, but you might suggest a support group for her – she’ll need it.

  12. AH says:

    I agreed with you until I was actually in the situation. I didn’t get sympathy. From co-workers, yes but from bosses, no way!. They did just about everything they could to ensure I got flare-ups and eventually had to go on disability.

  13. Z! says:

    It depends. Does this person have a severance package in place if the corp. should decide to fire them? Are they part of a union? Do they have funds from elsewhere to pay for the medical coverage they might need in the future? How long have they been working there? What is their relationship to the higher ups? Is it a large faceless company, or a small firm? How valuable are they?
    As an employer in a small business setting, I would want to know the status of my employee. It might not yet be my business, especially if no sign of work decay is present, but I’d want to know if there were medical issues and how this might affect future job performance. (Like hiring a pregnant staffer- how long will they stay? Will I just have to hire someone else in a few months and retrain?) What is MY bottom line?
    The fact is; I have a company to run and many people’s lives depend on the functioning of our well oiled machine. We cannot be too lenient and sacrifice our company job performance and fall behind for one individual. Replacements need to be found and training needs to be done and in the end- the job has to get done! The working world is cruel and there is no such thing as job security.
    We are not the gov’t (specifically Canada) who can afford to have absentee employees and just hire new staff and pay everyone what they think they are owed and more. Or have the attitude that the ‘job can wait’. It just doesn’t work that way in the US of A.
    This can be a logistical nightmare for an employer. Having to figure out, with or without the help of the ill employee, when is the time to find a replacement and when is the individual ready to say that they are unable to perform the job and let go and perhaps train a new employee before they leave.
    I do not envy this person their cunundrum and would hold out on telling my superiors for as long as possible.
    In this economy, there are people lined up around the block for your job.

  14. Mike S. says:

    What people said about the culture of the employer is important. One may also have some rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (I am assuming this is in the US) but that is very tricky, for example, there are chronic illnesses that may necessitate time off from work that will trigger an unpleasant response from an employer that are not severe enough to be covered under the law.

  15. Zohara says:

    In the US it is illegal for the employer to ask an employee what type of illness they have because they might be or become prejudiced against that illness/person who has an illness. Technically, employees are not supposed to tell an employer what type of illness they have.

    That said, it really depends on the culture of the workplace. I have told and not told, depending on the environment.

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