How to Come Out of the Closet About Your Health Condition: Work Edition

If you’re like me, the thought of letting your coworkers or boss know that you need help makes you want to crawl under your desk and hide.



“I’ll come out when it’s over.”

The first time I let an employer know that I was unable to do something because I was sick, I was literally so nervous my hands were shaking. I worked at small music school where I was expected to start teaching at 9am. I struggled with fatigue and nausea in the mornings; driving to work at that hour literally made me so sick that it took about three days to recover.


I worked hard to be a good teacher and I loved my job. I was also new to life with a chronic illness and had heard enough “but you don’t look sick”s and seen enough eye rolls to be hurt by what felt like others’ skepticism and indifference.


I worried that my boss wouldn’t understand. Would he doubt my story because I didn’t look sick? Was not being able to start at 9am a deal breaker? Would he let me go and hire someone healthy?


Ultimately, my boss accepted my disclosure with kindness and concern. I was able to move my students later in the day the very next week. I left his office feeling almost silly that I had spent so long worrying about the consequences of disclosing my health condition when I could have been starting work later and getting the rest I needed.


Getting the accommodations that you need will help you to be more productive, healthier, and happier at your job. Here’s how to do it:


Know when to disclose

To be clear, disclosure at work isn’t something that you have to do if you don’t want to. Unless I’m friends with my colleagues, I don’t typically share details about my personal life. Other people would prefer to be more open, and that’s fine, too.


However, when your health condition interferes with your ability to perform your job in the manner in which you always have, it might be in your best interest to disclose- and the sooner the better. You want to avoid being seen as unreliable or flakey, so open communication in this area is key.


Explain your condition.

“I have lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease.”


Use the medical diagnosis for your condition. If you don’t yet have a diagnosis, explain that also.


“I haven’t been feeling well, and I’ve made an appointment with an endocrinologist/rheumatologist/gastroenterologist. I’m hoping to have some answers soon.”


Then, explain what this means in terms of symptoms.


“This means that I have been feeling very fatigued/nauseous/sore. I’m having some issues with concentration/sitting for long periods of time/joint pain.”


Speak confidently. So many of us feel like we need to apologize for being sick. Remember that you never asked to be sick, and that you don’t need to apologize for something that was never within your control.


Understand your value at your work.

Unless you work for a truly crappy company in which you’re not much more than a warm body at a desk, your colleagues value you for what you’re able to accomplish, not the time you put in or whether you’re at your desk the second the clock strikes 9am.


What are your unique talents and gifts at your job? Are your ideas smart and original? Are you the one who pays attention to deadlines and details and keeps everyone else on task?


What kind of accommodations do you need to feel well enough to be able to maintain these strengths?


In all likelihood, your work would rather keep you than lose you. Hiring and training a replacement costs more than keeping an employee. Hopefully, you have built a stellar reputation and your work wouldn’t be the same without you.


Have a plan.


If your condition is acute, give a timeline for recovery. If you don’t know, promise to give updates.


If you are not expected to resume your former level of productivity, give suggestions on modifying your work environment.


What specific accommodations do you need in order to be productive? Do you need to start later in the day? Sit for longer? Get up and walk around every hour? Spend less time staring at a screen?


Relay these needs to your boss, and offer solutions. Instead of starting at 9am, you would like to start at noon and stay later. You can’t attend meetings after 6pm. You need a light filter installed on your computer, and your workstation has to be away from any fluorescent lights.


If I could give only one piece of advice, it would be to remember your value as an employee and to be brave. More likely than not, you are an integral part of your work environment, and your colleagues and boss will want to make the necessary accommodations to keep you comfortable and productive.


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