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You Don’t Need to Disclose Your Illness to Be Supported at Work

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For the past year and a half since I started graduate school, I’ve debated disclosing my chronic illnesses to my advisor. When I interviewed, I explained that I’d had a chronic illness in the past (since we discussed my leave of absence from college), but I didn’t say anything about my current conditions. I planned to do it when I started the program, but then I started virtually so I told myself I’d do it when I met him in person. And once we met in person, I wanted to wait until the field season had started because I wanted him to see me as a person before he learned about my illnesses. I realize that this is a major privilege of having my invisible illnesses, that I can choose if/when to discuss them.

Then, a few months ago, I started to become really sick again in a way that frequently interfered with my work. I stopped going to classes in person (luckily they all had a virtual option), and I found myself canceling meetings frequently and falling behind on work. When it first started, I assumed it was a virus or temporary illness, so I didn’t even consider telling my boss anything besides the fact that I “was sick.”

However, after a few weeks, I started to recognize symptoms that I’d had with previous illnesses, and some symptoms weren’t going away. I still don’t know what’s causing them, but at this point, it’s most likely a combination of chronic illnesses I’ve dealt with before and possibly new conditions.

During the summer, instead of taking classes, I work full-time as a research assistant to my advisor. The first few weeks of this summer were hard. I found myself struggling through every work day, still calling in sick several days a week, and too sick to do anything on the weekends. Every time I told him that I was too sick to work, I debated if I should tell him anything else or talk with him more about what was going on.

I spent hours reading articles on The Mighty, blogs, and other websites about discussing chronic illnesses with your boss. Every article had a different suggestion: some said never ever disclose your diagnosis with your boss, and only talk generally about it when you need accommodations. Others advised being upfront about your diagnosis and how it could affect your work in the future. Out of everything I read, there seemed to be two conclusions: 1) it depends on you, the specifics of your medical and work situations, and your relationship with your boss, and 2) you legally don’t have to disclose anything, so you should only do it if you’re comfortable with it.

Eventually, I decided that I would tell him some of what was going on, as an explanation for why I’d missed so much work, and to ask for more flexible hours in the future. I didn’t particularly care if he knew about my medical conditions, but it did feel sort of strange because he doesn’t know much about my personal life.

The next day, when our plans for the day got canceled, I asked if I could meet with him. When we sat down, he asked if we could talk about my health, and I said yes. When he asked how I was doing, I said OK. Even though I’d planned to, I didn’t say anything more specific, and he didn’t ask.

Instead, he told me that I could take as much time off as I thought would be helpful. He said I could work half days, or take a few days or even a week off if that would help. And he explained that it was OK if we missed some of my research plans for the summer, and that it didn’t matter compared to my health. Finally, he asked if there was anything else he could do to help me.

I’m so grateful for his response. I’m grateful that he was so supportive of me. That even though I felt like I was asking a lot by asking to shorten my work day, he never made it feel like I was causing a problem. I was shocked that he could be so supportive and offer so many helpful suggestions even though I didn’t disclose my illness.

In everything I read, it seemed like the only way to be supported by your employer was to disclose your illness. Even if you didn’t name your conditions, it seemed like you had to describe somewhat how it affects you and your work. And I’m sure that can be extremely helpful, especially if your boss is unsure how to support you. However, in that moment, I wasn’t ready to do that.

In the future, I might decide to talk more about my health conditions with my boss. If symptoms change how they affect me at work, maybe that will be a conversation. Or maybe I’ll just decide that I would like to talk to him about it. But I now realize that the choice to disclose your illness should not affect how you’re treated and if you’re supported. You should not disclose it because you feel like you owe someone an explanation, or because you feel pressured into it.

I’m glad I didn’t discuss it in more detail with him, because I clearly wasn’t ready. I thought I had to be ready, and I thought the fact that I had read about it, thought about how I’d bring it up, and planned what to say meant that I was ready. But it didn’t: I still felt uncomfortable about it, and I realized that it wasn’t just because I was nervous about having the conversation, it was because I was still sort of uncomfortable about how it would affect our relationship.

I hope you find people who are as supportive as I did. If your boss isn’t, talk to Human Resources or find someone else at your work to help you. And I hope that if you decide to talk about your illness, you do it because you want to, not because you feel as if you owe anybody an explanation.

This story originally appeared on Purple Garlic.

Getty image by insta_photos.

Originally published: July 21, 2022
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