Sharing Your Condition at Work: Is Honesty Truly the Best Policy?

Patient Expert

I am the paradigm of an oversharer. It's not just here on the Internet that I share grotesque details of my life and medical situations; this is a real thing that I do in my everyday life. I just can't seem to stop telling people too many personal things.

I'd love to say that in some situations I can filter out my oversharing and function like a normal person, but that would be a lie. So this is a "problem" in my friendships, relationships, and even in my employment. I know that whether or not to tell your employer about an illness you have is a highly controversial topic and based on my foreshadowing above, I'm sure you can guess where I stand on this issue. I tell. I have always told and sometimes it blows up in my face and other times magical situations arise and the universe gives me a high-five.

In 2007, I started a new job as a graphic designer for a small company that was ran by a friendly husband and wife. At this time, I had received my multiple sclerosis diagnosis, but had not yet exhibited symptoms of IBD. My MS was in remission, I had my first big girl job, and life was awesome. After a month or so, I felt compelled to tell my employers about my MS diagnosis. My rationale was that this company did not have an HR department, so if my MS flared and I had to take time off work, I felt like I'd have to explain it to my employer. I told them after they had gotten to know me a bit, saw that I was a competent employee who worked hard and they were very receptive. Luckily, my MS was never an issue while I worked there but IBD, on the other hand, turned out to be a huge issue.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and quickly after my diagnosis I was down for the count. I had two weeks of vacation and zero sick days in my contract and my vacation time was quickly used up after the first few hospital stays. I tried to "hide" my diagnosis from my employer because I was horribly embarrassed in the beginning, but once I learned how severe my UC was, I knew I could no longer hide it. I knew I had many hospital stays and surgeries in my future and would need their cooperation if I was going to keep my job. For the first few months, they were very understanding and supportive. But as time went by and I missed more and more work, their support dwindled. I understood their stance because it was a small company and I had an important job. But while they were busy worrying about signs that needed to be printed, I was worried about trying not to die. Our working relationship eventually went sour, and I lost my job due to all my time off. I do not regret telling them about my health situation.

How could I have kept it from them? Sometimes you don't have a choice, and honesty is the only option. And to be fair, honesty worked for me for a long time with that job. It wasn't my honesty that lost me my job, it was a bad situation and a lack of understanding that left me unemployed.

Fast forward to 2013, and I was in recovery from all of my surgeries, finishing grad school and yet again looking for employment. I had been blogging about my sick journey for almost four years and had reached thousands of readers worldwide.

The short version of this story is that one of those readers eventually offered me a job. A damn good job. Why? Because of the work I do in our community, the way I represent myself, and for the strength and perseverance I had shown through the last few years. So let me say that again, due to my honesty and oversharing, I was offered an amazing job. I am not naïve enough to think that this is common or how things go for most people. I'm not suggesting that complete honesty is the best scenario for everyone in their employment situation or job hunt. I have, however, learned that this is just how it has to be for me. I cannot hold in or hide who I am and being sick is a big part of who I am and what motivates me.

I think that if you do choose to share you medical conditions with an employer, more times than not you will be surprised at the compassion you receive.  At the end of the day, telling any employer is a personal choice. If you work for a small company it becomes significantly harder to hide your disease if you'd like to, so consider the pros and cons of just coming out and telling them when you're still feeling good. If the choice comes down to telling them when you're healthy versus telling them when you call in sick, choose healthy.

Unfortunately, I do believe that as chronically ill people we do have to work harder than most, if only to prove that we are worth keeping around when our illnesses make us underperform. For me, that's part of the game called life. I work really hard to prove that I am a worthy employee and I do think that by being upfront about my illnesses it shows my employer that I am dedicated to my job and making sure that I do it as well as I can.

What is your stance on telling your employer? Do you or have you told? How did it work out for you?