Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
It started out as a day like any other day. You were at work, doing your job like you always do. And then, unexpectedly, you were hit with symptoms of your chronic condition. Maybe they passed fairly quickly, or maybe you needed some help. Either way, your symptoms didn’t go unnoticed.
So. Just when you thought nobody would know about your chronic condition, your symptoms gave you away.
Here’s what to do
Say thanks. Once you have recovered, whether it’s the same day or days later, take aside anyone who may have come to your rescue and thank them. Nice to know you have some support at work, right?
Don’t expect discretion. Rare is the workplace in which a certain amount of gossip doesn’t occur. So let’s be honest. Chances are, you are a hot topic, with the story potentially changing from a “few symptoms” to an “attack” as it passes from one person to the next. We don’t have any control over what people choose to think or say. And it’s temporary.
Provide reassurance. In word but especially in deed. You may get lots of expressions of concern. Or, your chronic condition may be like an elephant in the room—everybody knows it’s there but nobody knows how to talk about it. The best way to deal with the elephant is to acknowledge it and move on. So when you’re back in the saddle, make an effort to make sure your co-workers know you are. Smile. Say good morning. And throw in: “I’m having a great day. I hope you are, too.”
Educate. Chances are, questions are going to arise. Some of them may not be asked in the most tactful way. Approach your curious co-workers on a case-by-case basis. If you want to talk about your condition and how it affects your life, that’s up to you. But keep in mind that you’re in control of the flow of information. If you don’t want to share, your response can be as simple as “I had some problems, but I am a lot better now. Thanks for asking.” But remember: You don’t have to make excuses for yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong.
Be realistic. You may be treated differently for awhile. Don’t be surprised if all that concern starts to feel like micromanaging. There also may be some people who seem to be giving you the silent treatment or odd, lingering looks. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your co-workers may also need some “recovery” time. And what feels like avoidance may just be not knowing what to say.
Know your rights. You are protected by state and Federal laws that govern how individuals living with a chronic condition can, and cannot, be treated in the workplace. So if you feel that you are being treated differently as a result of awareness of your chronic condition—if your role and responsibilities change, for example, or if you feel you are being stigmatized—then talk to your HR department or visit government websites to learn about your rights. And you might also want to talk to your doctor about any workplace accommodations that you might be able to request.
Time to be proactive? Symptoms at work can be a wake-up call. If you don’t have an emergency plan in place, then it may be time. This might be a matter of talking to the people you work most closely with or having a formal meeting with your boss or the HR department. Make sure your workplace knows what to do if you need help.
And take good care of yourself. Physically. Emotionally. At home. At work.