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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Handle a Major Health Issue at Work

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Let’s say you need a root canal next week, and you've scheduled an appointment to have the procedure Tuesday afternoon. You’re probably comfortable letting your co-workers know you have a dental appointment that will have you out of touch for a few hours but back online once the anesthesia wears off.

But what happens when you’re diagnosed with a more complicated, longer-term health issue?

Last spring, 29-year-old Katie Kimball started waking up nauseous every morning. At that point, she was working a demanding job managing operations for a growth company in the legal sector, so she just attributed her symptoms to stress.

But as the months passed, Kimball’s condition persisted. One day while working from home, she found herself on a conference call letting co-workers know she’d “be right back,” only to realize that she was bleeding from her large intestine. In the hospital days later, she learned that she was suffering from a condition called ulcerative colitis.

Whether it’s a chronic illness, a cancer diagnosis, or any other condition that will have you out of the office for multiple doctor’s appointments and potentially in need of special accommodations, a health issue raises complications far more difficult than trying to make sure you’ve completed all the items on your to-do list.

And while there’s no script for how to handle your job when your health is compromised, here are some tips on navigating what can be a very tricky work situation.


Understanding Your Condition and Your Rights

First and foremost, try to put work aside and make sure you have a doctor who you can trust to advise you on how this new health situation will affect your life.

“I think the first step [in dealing with a new diagnosis] is to get as informed as possible,” says Laurie Edwards, author of In the Kingdom of the Sick: A Social History of Chronic Illness in America. “Try to get a realistic idea of what your limitations will be. Of course this will vary [by person], but the more information you have, the better equipped you are to make the right choices.”

You may find droves of information about your illness online, but do your best to focus on what your specific needs are right now. How often will you be out of the office for appointments? What special accommodations will you need (if any)? Once you have clarified upcoming challenges for yourself, you will be able to communicate to your boss and co-workers more clearly.

If you are dealing with an illness that will have you out of the office long-term, don’t make the common mistake of using up your sick days or fearing you could lose your job—you may have protections afforded to you by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The main thing to know about these two provisions is that the FMLA protects employees with a “serious health condition”—including pregnancy, chronic conditions like epilepsy, and cancer—and provides up to 12 weeks of leave to employees who meet certain criteria. “The ADA is much less detailed and very fact specific. It protects individuals with a disability, which is defined as ‘an impairment that substantially limits a life activity’ and entitles them to ‘reasonable accommodation.’ And there are thousands of cases for what that includes,” says Megan P. Norris, chair of the Labor and Employment Group at law firm Miller Canfield.

According to Patrick Hicks, founding shareholder of the Las Vegas office of Littler Mendelson—a law firm exclusively focused on labor and employment law—there’s no need to try and wrap your head around these employment laws on your own. He suggests that the best thing to do when you become seriously ill is to check your employee handbook for information and contact your HR department to ask about what protections may apply.

Manage the Conversation

After a new diagnosis or a health scare, your gut instinct may fall to one of two extremes depending on your work environment and position: to tell everyone at work what you’re dealing with or to hide it completely.

But there’s another option: clear communication about your health needs, which does not necessarily mean disclosing your condition.

Rosalind Joffe—a career coach who specializes in helping people with chronic illness and who has lived with disorders herself for over 30 years—says she advises clients who are facing the challenge of disclosure to ask themselves, before speaking to a colleague: “What do I want and need from this conversation?”

For example, what you need may be more flexibility or the ability to work from home. In this case, Joffee advises keeping workplace communication unemotional, in person, and focused on how this health event is affecting you and what your co-workers can expect from you.

“The disease itself creates distraction in the workplace,” Joffee says. “You want to make sure your communication is focused on what you want it to be and to take charge of that.”

This may mean that instead of telling co-workers you were recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia, you could say you have a disease that means you will periodically have debilitating fatigue that lasts for up to 48 hours and that you need to figure out a way to accommodate for that without getting in the way of the team’s productivity.

It’s important to remember that you are in charge of what you disclose to co-workers and that communicating your needs does not have to mean compromising your privacy.

Enlist Support

That being said, you may feel perfectly comfortable discussing your situation at work, and in this case, co-workers can be a good source of support.

Originally from California and unfamiliar with New York City hospitals, Kimball shared her condition with some of her work colleagues once she realized how severe it was. “They came through and were like family,” Kimball says. “They let me work remotely so I could be near a bathroom. And the company was so understanding—[my colleagues] were the ones to suggest I take advantage of disability.” Not only did they help her navigate the uphill battle of ADA protection, they also advised her about which hospital to use.

Kimball now says that, if she had known how understanding her colleagues would be, she would have brought her health needs up before they became an emergency. "I would have asked for more support earlier."

Prioritize Your Health

It can be hard to remember when you have hundreds of emails to answer and deadlines to meet that your priority at this moment is to take care of yourself. This can mean anything from getting a different chair to sit in to figuring out more flexible hours. In some cases, it may mean finding a new job entirely.

Now an executive assistant at web analytics company Chartbeat, Kimball eventually made the decision to leave her job and find a work environment that was less stressful. After landing her new gig, she immediately disclosed that she had been on disability over the past year and let her boss and HR department know there would be times when she would have to work a little differently.

Her advice to anyone facing the kind of illness she faced last year is to not let work overshadow your health needs.

“Instead of pushing myself at work through this illness that I didn't realize was so serious, I wish I had put myself first and taken it a little easier at work,” she says. “There were emails that didn't need to be answered at 9 PM on a Sunday.”

As Kimball has learned, the best thing you can do for yourself is to address the illness you’re facing before it gets out of control. And then, you can communicate with co-workers and advocate for your needs.