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Health Conditions in the Workplace

We all have days when we don’t feel great at work. But what if it's every day?

Key points

  • If you have real concerns about your ability to do your job, you can request “reasonable accommodations.”
  • All your medical information must be kept confidential by your boss.
  • Self-care and being your own advocate are important parts of whole-person health, including at work.

This post is Part 1 of a series.

We all have days when we don’t feel great at work. But what if that day is every day or several days a month?

You may know someone living and working with a chronic condition. Maybe you know someone like Janet, age 52, who worked during breast cancer treatment. Or Liam, who lives with a rare neurological condition that affects his balance and coordination, raising his risk of falling. Velaida’s migraines can wipe her out for several days—but because her symptoms are invisible, her coworkers scoff when she takes yet another sick day. And few people at Calvin’s IT consulting firm know that he takes medication for bipolar disorder.

So, what do you do if you’re living with a health condition? Even post-COVID syndrome, also known as “long COVID” and by other names, can affect you or someone else in your workplace for weeks or months, if not permanently. In this post, I’ll offer some tips for employees and a few pointers for employers.

Define your goals.

You may want to tell your boss everything or nothing. It’s up to you, unless you plan to request workplace changes that will help you do your job (we’ll talk about that below).

Here are some questions to consider before sharing:

  • Can I do the job I was hired to do?
  • Am I as productive as expected? Do I anticipate a time when I will not be able to do as much, or when I will need time off for surgery or other treatments?
  • Does the quality of my work meet the expectations and needs for my job?
  • Am I struggling with anything related to caring for my physical, mental, or emotional health or doing my job? For example, am I able to take the time I need for doctor’s appointments or treatments? Am I able to come to work on time? Do I need to request a schedule change?

If you have real concerns about your ability to do your job, you can request “reasonable accommodations.” The U.S. law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers this, and your employer is required to follow this law.

Do you have to say something?

Some jobs, such as flying a plane, can include physical requirements. But, in general, you are not required to disclose a health condition, according to the Job Accommodation Network, which helps employees and employers comply with the ADA.

The main reason to tell your boss about a disability or health condition is to request reasonable accommodations. For example, if you live with migraine, an accommodation might be moving your desk from a noisy or brightly lit area to a dimmer, quieter place where migraines are less likely to be triggered. If long COVID has caused problems with your memory and ability to focus, you may need extra time to complete some tasks or to put extra work systems in place for safety and accuracy.

In some cases, such as with cancer, you may want to prepare your manager or supervisor for the possibility that you will be too sick to come to work in the future. For example, you may feel fine now but won’t be able to work for a couple of weeks after a planned surgery.

Chemotherapy takes a more invisible toll that is often unpredictable. Similar to post-COVID syndrome, chemotherapy can cause “brain fog” and severe fatigue. Talk with your supervisor to help them feel comfortable that you will do everything in your power to maintain performance and communicate frankly when you cannot. If you live with a mental health condition, you may need or want to talk with your supervisor if you make a major medication change or undergo specific treatments. You may need time off or a change in responsibilities while your brain and body adjust. This goes for adjusting any treatment related to a long-term condition.

Learn more about telling your supervisor about a disability at the Job Accommodation Network.

Does your boss have to keep your medical information confidential?

Yes. All your medical information must be kept confidential, whether it relates to a chronic condition, such as multiple sclerosis or back pain, or a sudden illness, such as the flu. COVID-19 is an exception—although you have a right to medical privacy, you’ll probably learn quickly if one of your coworkers tests positive for this virus, simply because people tend to share the news to help others take testing and isolation measures.

In general, though, your workplace can only disclose your health information if you need treatment, an insurance company or other organization needs it to get payment for your treatment, or a health care organization like a hospital needs the information. Sharing the information that, for example, "Olivia is getting treatment for an anxiety disorder," is against the law. But what about the workplace busybody? If someone asks your supervisor why you received an accommodation, such as an ergonomic chair or a different schedule, they still cannot share personal information. They may say, “We make all our decisions based on business reasons, and we can’t share personal information about other employees.”

You can also gently remind your employer of your right to privacy when you talk about a condition or disability by saying, “Thank you for keeping my medical information confidential. It means a lot to me.”

How can whole-person care help?

Whole-person care can help you manage a chronic disease or condition, even cancer or multiple sclerosis, which has symptoms that may ebb and flow. Elmore’s story is a good example of how a healing environment promoted better health. Conditions such as chronic pain, menopause symptoms, sleep problems, and cancer can all benefit from including whole-person approaches in treatment.

Self-care and being your own advocate are important parts of whole-person health. Self-care at work might include making sure your workstation fits your body and that you have adequate lighting, you’re taking your legally mandated breaks and meal periods, and are not doing job duties to excess or pushing yourself beyond your energy or strength in order to seem “fine” or “normal.” Plan enough time to take your medications, test blood sugar, or manage other medical needs during the day.

Being your own advocate means maintaining good boundaries and speaking with appropriate people when needed. If you’re struggling to find a time to eat lunch or take your medication, you may need to explain to a supervisor why it’s medically important to do so. If working in certain environments triggers posttraumatic stress or a migraine, requesting to work in different circumstances is an important way to advocate for yourself.

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