In Sickness and in Health – Dealing with Illnesses at Work

I am sadly coming up on my last week at WEGO Health before I head back to Hofstra. Today, in helping prepare for next month’s “Back to Work” theme, I started doing some research about how to balance work and health. Much of what I found boiled down to the same basic sentiment: Tell your boss about your condition/health problems only if it will affect your ability to do your job. If not, don’t bother.

As someone who has actually left a job for medical reasons, I find this line of thinking a little troubling. When I was a junior in high school, I was working at a gift shop in Copley Square. I happened to come into work at the same time we would be receiving shipments for the day, meaning that after a 7 or 8 hour school day, I had to go to work and start lifting boxes and putting away merchandise.  At first it wasn’t a problem, and I made it through the first couple of weeks just fine.

After a month or so, however, I started to notice that the physical nature of the job was starting to wear on me. The job came less than a year after I was diagnosed with anemia and orthostatic hypotension. I would often get dizzy as a result of changing positions too fast or exerting myself a little more than I should have. After a particularly hectic week in October, at the urging of my guidance counselor, I called my boss and told him that I wouldn’t be able to continue working there. I didn’t give any more details than I felt were necessary. To this day, that is the only job I have ever quit.

Had I discussed my condition with my boss, I might have been able to continue working there. Or he might have decided to let me go. Who knows what would have happened. The fact of the matter is that by deciding not to talk about my health, I let it affect my ability to do my job. It might not have had to end the way it did. But this was five years ago, and if I had known then what I know now, I might have chosen to have a discussion with my boss and try to work out a solution while still fulfilling my duties.

So if you have a health condition, be it mental or physical, yes, it is entirely your prerogative whether to inform your boss or not. But I highly suggest weighing the risks and benefits of doing so or not doing so. Even if you doubt that your condition will affect your ability to do your job, there is always the possibility that it will. Having that discussion with your employer is really a matter of preempting a potentially harmful situation. If I had the chance to relive my gift shop days, I would have talked to my boss about my diagnoses the first day I started working there.

I’m sure there are some people who have reasons not to discuss their health with their employer. To these people I say, if you are worried about discrimination or anything of the sort, please know that you have rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act exists for just such reasons, as well as the Family Medical Leave Act if something happens to a relative and you need to take a leave of absence. Don’t hide your illness out of fear, because you may end up making things worse for yourself in the end.

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