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HR's Response to Employee's Pain Highlights Issue People With Chronic Illness Often Face

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After a coworker “called her out” for visibly managing her pain at work, one woman is speaking out about the shame and judgment women often face when it comes to their periods. The viral post may resonate if you’ve ever had to cope with invisible health challenges (particularly ones others label as “taboo”) in the office.

A user with the screen name Snuffalo posted on the Mumsnet forum last week that her “sort-of-supervisor Guy” (the name has been changed) came over to her, noticed she had a hot water bottle on her lap and said, “There’s no way you’re cold today, are you?” Snuffalo replied no, it was just for the pain relief, to which he gave a “confused and then literally horrified expression” and walked away.

Less than 10 minutes later, she said she got a message from a human resources administrator that said, “Guy says you’re not well and should go home, everything OK?” After responding that she was fine and was using the hot water bottle for menstrual cramps, she said the human resources director reached out to her and asked to meet with her privately.

The human resources director told her she shouldn’t disclose her medical problems to anyone who isn’t part of HR as it can make them uncomfortable.

I’m literally shocked, I explain exactly what happened, she says “yes I understand, if you’re so unwell you need a hot water bottle you should be home, Guy is extremely uncomfortable and it’s unprofessional.” I say “this is weird, ok, anything else”? She’s quite breezy and professional – “No, that’s all, if you’re feeling better that’s great but if you need to, please do go home, OK bye!”

Snuffalo said she was “flabbergasted,” especially because other people use standing desks and special chairs for different kinds of pain and, as she said, “I’m not allowed to have a hot water bottle for my menstrual cramps? Am I right to be completely f*****g furious?”

Other Mumsnet users agreed with Snuffalo’s dismay. “It’s appalling to make such a fuss about someone having a hot water bottle. I regularly used to have one for back pain. It does seem like discrimination if other people are allowed aids to manage their various conditions, but you are told you should go home as you are making someone ‘uncomfortable?’” said a user with the screen name RatherBeRiding.

Some questioned whether HR was being unreasonable by suggesting she go home if she was in pain. Aa user under the screen name coddiwomple commented, “I am female, and I would be very uncomfortable to see a one of my subordinate doubled up in pain with a hot water bottle! It sounds perfectly reasonable to involve HR and not go into private details yourself. What exactly do you expect the boss to do? Please do not say ignore, because said boss will get in trouble or be complained against for ignoring.”

For people with chronic illnesses, the decision of whether or not to go to work or call in sick is never made lightly. No matter how “well” they look to their coworkers, they may be secretly dealing with pain or other symptoms to avoid using up limited sick time and to stay on top of their work. We asked our Mighty community to share how they decide whether or not to go to work or call in sick. Here’s what they told us:

“If my pain doesn’t allow me to get up and dressed. If I can do those two things then I can go to work and more often than not, once I’m there I’m OK. So much better now I don’t have to commute 2.5 hours each way!” — Samantha F.

“After a shower. I always ‘try.’ That means I see if I can get out of bed, then see how I feel after a shower. Sometimes I feel like showering helps even if I can’t really wash my hair.” — Makayla Marie G.

“I see if I’m contagious (a cold on top of the chronic issues for example), I see how I feel after I shower, I stretch to see what hurts, and check my pain/stiffness level. If I can’t perform the duties of my job then there is no point in going.” — AnneMarie G.

“Due to my existing medical bills and cost of living, I can rarely call out of work. The two or three times I have called out were when I stood up and passed out. I try not to let the pain, nausea, vomiting, or weakness keep me from going to work. I have no other choice.” — Jennifer D.

“For me it’s a case of when the last time was and how much money I would lose. Currently I’m unemployed but when I was it was more about could I afford to than did I need to. Many times I had to struggle through even though it was difficult to get out of bed which was very hard to do seeing as I worked in a fast-paced, high-pressure retail environment where I couldn’t sit down the entire shift.” — Teri F.

“If I can’t walk well, I know my body needs rest and forcing myself to work will only hurt me in the end. I don’t think people realize how much time and energy it takes just to shower and get dressed when you’re having a flare day. I’m in pain every day, but when the pain wakes me up before my alarm, that’s going to be a bad day.” — Tasha C.

“It’s really hard to determine. Sometimes I finally choose to cancel or when I was working calling in sick when I knew my pain levels would not drop down and I couldn’t get any rest or relief. When I knew I wouldn’t be able to function or do my job well… that’s when I’d call in sick. Sometimes we can press through but usually by the time I’m considering canceling plans I have already pushed through and I’ve hit the wall and can’t push through anymore.” — Jenny W.

“When the commute is a serious risk to my health. Or I physically cannot sit at a desk due to pain levels or fatigue. I have worked for 10 years but I’m seriously getting worried at how hard my conditions are making it. I don’t want to let anyone down but I also don’t want to hurt myself in the process.” — Keely S.

“Do I have call-in days left? Is it worth it — will I regret using one of those days and not saving it for later? Will I feel better in a little it once I start moving around?” — Brittany C.

When my fatigue and/or pain is such a distraction that my coworkers’ (deputies) lives are at risk (I’m a 911 dispatcher).” — Michelle B.

“Fortunately I have two awesome managers. I just tell the truth without softening blows or trying to downplay it and they understand. I consider myself extremely lucky with them.” — Chell D.

Thinkstock photo by kieferpix

Originally published: July 17, 2017
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