Talking About Chronic Illness at Work


I have been in my current job as a Health Data Analyst & Client Liaison for a long-term home care company for two months and have been with my current company for just over six months, and I was pretty open and honest about my illnesses from the very beginning, starting with the cover letter I submitted with my application. In fact, my being a patient is what attracted me to the health care field in the first place

Perhaps you, however, didn’t disclose your health issues on your resume, or during your interview.  So — how do you talk about illness at work?  Or do you talk about your illness at work?

I am a hardly a master at having conversations about my illnesses. However, I feel that it's necessary.

Why? Here’s an example:

I moved recently, which caused my arthritis to flare. I missed three days of work. I don’t think I have ever missed three days in a row of anything in my life. It was bad. But I think it would have been worse if I hadn’t been open about my illnesses with my boss from the beginning. Because my boss had some knowledge about my illnesses, I was able to explain that I was having a flare.  I knew that she might not understand the full extent of my struggle, but at least hearing that I had lupus and RA didn’t take her completely by surprise.

When I was able to go back to work, I asked to sit down and talk with my boss for a few minutes about the situation. I explained that missing that amount of work was very atypical for me, but that I couldn’t make any promises that it would never happen again. The key is that you don’t want to overstate the situation to the point where your boss questions your ability to do your job.  But you also don’t want to underplay it to the point where your boss thinks that your illnesses won’t ever affect you or your job (as they likely will). It’s a fine balance — more an art than a science.

Do all of my co-workers know about my illnesses? No.

That said, when I was featured as part of my company’s “employee spotlight” on social media, I mentioned having lupus and RA. It’s no dirty secret — but I don’t share just to share.

I find that erring on the side of caution is more important than trying to protect yourself from concerns that may or may not actually exist. Remember that you have rights, and there are laws in place to protect you from discrimination based on your health status, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

There are definitely pros and cons to disclosing about your chronic illness at work. When thinking about this, ask yourself the following questions:

Is my illness so small an issue, currently or in the past, that it will never have an impact on my work life?

Most people cannot say “yes” to this question. If you can say “yes,” you might want to consider NOT disclosing.

Is there any time in which I could be doing myself a disservice by not disclosing?

If you are being dishonest, either with yourself or an employer, you could be causing more harm than if you simply disclosed about your health issue. If you don’t disclose, this could be a problem if you have a serious issue and haven’t at least warned your employer about it ahead of time.

Have I had difficulties in previous jobs as a result of disclosing?

Are my concerns about disclosure the result of previous bad experiences? Do I need to change my approach in how I disclose?

Are the issues that occur at work because of my illness unique to me as a chronically ill person?

The answer to this question is probably “no,” which should make you feel a little less self-conscious about asking for help. Everyone takes a day or two off of work as a result of acute illness or other emergency. While it might happen a little more often for you, don't think that your employer will be re-inventing the wheel for you as a result of your chronic illness, because they probably won't. I’d like to think that much of what would benefit me as a chronically ill person will help my fellow, non-chronically ill co-workers, as well.

As for the jobs that I applied to and didn’t get, or never heard back from, I cannot say whether those rejections had anything to do with my illnesses. But I can’t live in the past. I have a job now that I love and in which I feel I am highly effective, in part because of my personal experience as a patient. Obviously, my company felt that way, or they never would have hired me to begin with.

See More Helpful Articles:

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

Can You Work With RA?

Hard Conversations: When Rheumatoid Arthritis Affects Your Work

Keeping Rheumatoid Arthritis Private at Work

The Struggles of Finding a Job With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Leslie Rott authors the blog Getting Closer To Myself.  She is a professional patient advocate, and has been raising awareness about lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and issues involving chronically ill students in higher education since 2008.  Along with writing for HealthCentral, she writes for a variety of other health sites, as both a featured blogger and a guest contributor.