Disclosing Your Chronic Illness at Work

Patient Expert

You’ve just gotten a diagnosis of a chronic illness. You know you want to tell close family members and friends about it. But should you disclose at work?

Let's look more closely at the issue of being open about chronic illness in the workplace.

The legal side

Human rights and anti-discrimination laws exist in the United States and in other countries, due to a long history of discrimination against people in the workplace because they're "different." Those differences can revolve around race, disability, gender, sexual orientation — the list goes on.

In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with chronic illness and disability. It prohibits employers from firing or not hiring individuals with such conditions solely for the reason of their chronic illness or disability.

In addition, you are not legally obligated to tell your employer about your illness — unless you will require accommodations so that you can do the job. If you have just been diagnosed, it may be too soon for you to know whether you can benefit from accommodations.

If you believe your chronic illness may impact your work, think about the different ways this can happen. For instance, pain and fatigue or frequent medical appointments may require you to have some flexibility in work hours or the ability to work from home. If you have issues with dexterity, you might benefit from various tools that can help you do your job. The Job Accommodation Network has more examples of condition-specific accommodations.

The human side

Although you are under no obligation to tell anyone at work about your illness, you might choose to do so, anyway. Much depends on your workplace. Is it small and intimate, with a family feel, or is it a larger, more impersonal organization? Does your employer have an anti-discrimination policy? Are you aware that people have had trouble with disclosing in the past, or does your organization have a track record of hiring or retaining people with disabilities?

Disclosing does carry some risk. Although employers are prohibited from letting you go due to your chronic illness, they can find another reason to use as a smokescreen, and co-workers aren’t always understanding. In fact, they can sometimes be downright mean if a colleague is perceived as getting “special treatment.”

Before you disclose, plan ahead for the possibility that things might go sideways. Know who to talk to in the Human Resources Department. If your employer doesn’t have equal opportunity staff, try talking to the person in charge of getting injured workers back to the job. Know your rights and a bit about the kinds of accommodations you might need. (The Job Accommodation Network is a great resource.) Lastly, make sure your resume is always up-to-date so you can look for an employer that might be more accommodating of your needs.

How to disclose at work

Talk to your boss before you need accommodation. Determining if the accommodations can be done, and how best to do so, can take a while. At this stage, you don’t have to tell them the details of your medical condition. Disclosing that you have a chronic illness that may require accommodation is enough. However, it may help to talk about how it could affect you in relation to your job and some of accommodations that might be useful.

Be calm and professional, and try not to be too anxious. Keep in mind that you are likely not the first or only person with a chronic illness in that organization. As well, there may already be flexibility — for instance, if you can work late one day to leave early the next in order to take the kids, or yourself, to an appointment.

One last thing that might help you feel more confident in approaching your boss. You can tell them that there can be a competitive advantage in hiring people with disabilities. Studies have shown that such workers are more loyal and efficient, have less absenteeism, and are more safety conscious.

Although disclosing your chronic illness at work can feel nerve-racking, it can ultimately lead to getting the support you need to work better. This can help you keep your job and enable your boss to keep a dedicated employee.

See More Helpful Articles:

A Beginner’s Guide to RA: Workin’ for a Living

Hard Conversations: When Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Your Work

Do Not Be Afraid to File for FMLA Protection

Be Financially Self-Sufficient With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She’s the author of Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.