8 Tips for Disclosing Your Illness to Your Boss and Colleagues
Deciding whether to disclose a disability or health concern to your boss and your co-workers can be a difficult decision and it’s not one to be taken lightly. I’ve experienced both sides; I’ve worked in places I never told, and I’ve worked in places I did. I’ve also experienced both the amazing and terrible ways in which employers can respond to disclosure. In my own case, my illness became too obvious to hide and to be honest I was just so tired of lying and feeling alone in my struggle. I was fantastic at my job, and when I was able to work in ways that worked around my illness I was able to shine and free to be my best self but in order to do that I needed the support of my boss and my colleagues.
So if you’re thinking about having that conversation with your own boss and co-workers, here are some things to include in those conversations to turn your disclosure into something that will help you and your co-workers in the future:
1. Contingency planning
Agree a worst-case scenario plan with your boss ahead of time, so if it arises it is no big deal. You will not be in the mental or physical space to negotiate or ask for what you need in that moment, so plan for it before you need it.
2. Have a plan in place for work boundaries
Have a plan to make sure worst-case scenarios are rare by planning your regular work schedule, hours, tasks and ways of working with your boss to set you up to be the best you can be at your job.
3. Draw them a map
Take responsibility for your part in this; they don’t know you or your illness and they don’t know what’s best for you, but you do. Have your own strategies and ideas ready that you know will work or might help. They are counting on you to help them get to a place of understanding.
4. Be clear on your value and ROI
Make the return on investment clear to your boss, show them how helping you benefits the business, what you can do that you couldn’t before and how that helps your boss and your colleagues and whole team. Know your value and be confident in it, they get an amazing ROI in return for a bit of flexibility so remind them of what you bring to the table.
4. It takes a village
Talk to your colleagues and make sure they are all on the same page (but ensure your manager is OK with you sharing those details first). Sharing from the outset can get out in front of any unspoken issues and resentments before they have chance to develop. Be honest with your work friends and colleagues and explain what you need and don’t need when you are ill. Everyone is different, I used to like to get a text just to say “hi” or asking if there was anything I needed help with, it reminded me I was part of something and people were thinking of me on my bad days. I have friends, however, who found any reminder of work even just a “hello” from a colleague sent them spiraling into anxiety. Make sure they know which camp you fall into and what they can do to help.
5. Give something back
Don’t be the person who is always take, take, take. Your colleagues will understand things aren’t always easy for you, but they still expect a two-way street so make sure you are building good relationships. They probably have invisible struggles of their own and problems they don’t necessarily share, just like you. So, make sure to ask if you can help them too and create an environment where they can ask you for help and vice versa.
6. Team building
Work related team building and out of work events can be difficult when you have an illness. The traditional physical team-building days can be exhausting even for a healthy individual, so help manage expectations and remove any bad feelings by getting involved with the planning stages. Is there a person who always organizes work events? If so, reach out and make that person your new best friend! Make it clear how much you value your team and let them know you are open to having your brain picked about making the events inclusive and fun for everyone.
7. Use your emotional intelligence
Chronic illness often makes you more empathetic and a bit more clued-up on what is going on for other people, so use that emotional intelligence to your favor. Know what matters to your manager and your team, think about what motivates them and what is important to them. Also think about what they don’t like and what annoys them. This will help you to focus on doing more to help with those things, avoiding words and subjects which are triggers for them and use more language that will appeal to their personality. Any idea which helps towards things they care about and removes more of things they don’t like while also providing you help or flexibility is going to sound good to them. For example, you might be able to sway some flexibility if as part of that, something else important to that person gets done. Maybe there is a task or project that requires quiet and focus that just isn’t getting done in a noisy office environment that could be one of your tasks on a work from home day? Think outside the box and see how your situation can benefit the whole team.
8. Know your audience
Know how your boss and colleagues prefer to communicate; do they like to have something to read first and think about it, or do they like lists and bullet points or spreadsheets? Do they prefer in-person, do they like to be prepared or go with the flow? What you say is only as effective as how you say it and how they receive it, so make sure you set yourself up for success by tweaking how you deliver what you have to say.
Disclosure isn’t for everyone, but it can be an amazing way to connect with your co-workers in a way you haven’t been able to before and another tool in your toolkit for managing work and health.
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Stay classy warrior workers!
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