I recently received an important question from a listener with a chronic heart condition. He wondered how much he should reveal to his employer about his condition, considering he sometimes needs to take time off. Here’s my response:
First, thanks for sharing your question and for trusting me with the details of your health situation. I'm glad to hear that you've been managing up to this point, however, I'm sorry you are facing such difficult challenges (both physically and communication-wise).
Get Legal and Financial Advice
Although this is an extremely difficult, very personal question about communication, my first suggestion is to meet with a labor attorney and financial advisor. Here in the US, it's often the legal and financial ramifications that dictate how much you want to communicate to your employer.
I believe that your primary goal should be to protect yourself and your family; you don't want to put yourself or your family in financial jeopardy. You'll want to ensure that whatever benefits are due to you are available for as long as possible. You'll want to be crystal clear about what your company can and cannot do in terms of health care, salary, short-term disability, long-term disability, time off, etc. as well as understand local and federal laws and regulations (in the US this would include The Family and Medical Leave Act). As difficult as it may be, you'll want to have a plan in place for all potential outcomes that might result, if and when you decide to disclose the full details of your health situation. It’s worth the investment to get accurate legal and financial advice before you need it!
It would also be helpful if you have a trusted friend or relative who can also be a part of these discussions. It's always good to have someone else who understands all the details and can advocate on your behalf, since there may come a time when it's best for you to focus 100% on your health.
Corporations Answer to Their Shareholders
In the US, the legal and financial considerations often mean sharing as little as possible because some employer benefits are quite limited and you don't want to be forced to take them too early. I know from personal experience that promises are made (especially when a well-liked employee discloses while the health issue is still manageable) but, unfortunately, are often not upheld once things become more difficult for both parties. In the US, The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits an employer from dismissing a chronically ill employee on the basis of the disability as long as the employee is able to do the job with reasonable accommodation. But issues often occur because the definitions of “reasonable” and “able” are up for interpretation. In addition, people sometimes react negatively to those who are different from us or who are chronically ill.
As cold as it may sound, it’s important to always keep in mind that the professional obligation of your boss and the human resources representative is to the company and not you. A corporation needs to answer to shareholders, and typically that means a commitment to managing risks and efficiency while making a profit. When you communicate a significant, difficult health status to an organization, it puts your career trajectory at risk because your health situation in turn puts the company at risk. That’s why, particularly in situations where the future of your health is difficult to determine and/or health issues may not be obvious, I believe it's best to not disclose any more than is absolutely necessary.
By the way, in the US, students in college typically share the details of their health status with only one person—usually in a disability office. That office then documents any needed accommodations and will then send each new professor a note explaining what needs to be done for the student. It’s important to note that they don’t inform each professor of the health status, only which accommodations are necessary. In this way, the student's privacy is not violated. This works great in a university setting, but keep in mind a student is a customer, not an employee!
Anything Disclosed Will Be Repeated
In a work environment, you need to assume that anything you choose to disclose to anyone (even if you ask them not to share due to privacy) will be repeated to all senior management and documented by human resources. Again, the professional obligation is to the company, not the employee. As much as your manager may like you or want to help you, ultimately, you need to recognize that often several people will be involved with decision making as your performance impacts the company’s performance.