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.
Have you disclosed your chronic condition to a co-worker, and later discovered that the news didn’t stop at him or her? Or you otherwise found that you and your chronic condition were grist for the gossip mill? Here’s what happened to Mike:
Mike has been living with a chronic condition for a few years. While his condition is under control with medication, he has had symptoms arise that have occasionally resulted in missing a day or two of work. A few of the people he works most closely with have commented when Mike was not feeling well, but he has been able to keep his condition to himself. Mike is concerned that his co-workers might not understand and that they might treat him differently as a result, or assume he can’t manage his job responsibilities.
A couple of weeks ago, while Mike was having lunch with his co-worker Dave, with whom he has worked for a few years, he disclosed his diagnosis, and briefly talked about how it has impacted his life.
A few days later, another co-worker pulled Mike aside and said, “I heard you were sick. I had no idea. How are you doing?"
Another co-worker said the words that Mike dreaded hearing: “If you’re not feeling up to things today, let me know. I can give you a hand.”
Mike feels like Dave has betrayed him. He hadn’t actually sworn him to secrecy, but he had hoped that Dave would not talk about Mike’s diagnosis with anyone else.
If you were Mike, what would you do in this situation? Here are some ideas:
Accept that people are going to talk. We have no control over how other people think or behave. The ship comes in and then it leaves. Gossip works the same way. So try not to stress about what your co-workers might be saying about you.
Talk to the person you disclosed to. Whether or not you had an agreement that your disclosure was intended to be confidential, gently but firmly let them know how disappointed you are. This doesn’t have to damage your relationship. However, if it is on your mind, don’t keep it to yourself.
Don’t resist. While you might feel like putting up a wall and ignoring any comments or questions, taking this approach may raise red flags that in turn lead to more comments and questions. It’s kind of like when sharks smell blood in the water.
Use comments as teachable moments. If a co-worker makes a comment about your chronic condition, make this an opportunity for some clarification. Thank them for their concern (even when their intention doesn’t seem to come from a place of concern). Inform them that you are doing fine and don’t need them to worry about you. And if you would prefer not to discuss it in the future, you can say that too.
Have a sense of humor. For example, if the person who disclosed your condition is referenced, you can say something like, “Yeah, I hired Dave as my publicist. He’s doing a good job, isn’t he?” Or, “You’re gonna spoil me with all this attention.” Humor has a way of helping everyone keep their perspective.
Lose the sense of shame. You have a right to keep your chronic condition to yourself. But if you are hiding it out of shame, or out of fear that you will be judged as less than others, then maybe this unintended disclosure is a teachable moment for you as well. So you’re living with a chronic condition. You’re also taking the best possible care of yourself. No excuses, no apologies.
Maintain as you always have. There is a lot to be said for just doing your job. Actions speak louder than words.