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How Much Health Information Should You Really Reveal at Work?

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To tell or not to tell your employer about a health condition is a tricky question. And, to be totally honest, the answer depends heavily on your individual scenario—and likely, no one has a better handle on that than you. Some of the factors to gauge: Is my health problem sabotaging the quality of my work, and is keeping mum putting me at risk for getting fired or getting passed over for a promotion? Is the issue making me appear lazy, incompetent, or disinterested to my boss and coworkers? Is there an adjustment or some reasonable assistance my supervisor could provide that would allow me to do my job better or more comfortably? Has the company been supportive of employee health problems in the past? Enough “yesses” may warrant that nerve-wracking knock on the door of your supervisor and Human Resources. (Get more career advice by reading up on 10 Ways to Be Happier at Work Without Changing Jobs.)

If you decide to fess up, your employer may be legally bound by anti-discrimination laws—with the federal American Disabilities Act (ADA) setting many of the standards—to provide your request for help or changes at work, a.k.a. reasonable accommodations. Know that there is no finite list of conditions covered by law; each "disability" is judged individually. “It’s all viewed on a case-by-case basis, but the laws often cover a health condition, or disability, that’s substantially interfering with a major life activity, such as driving, walking, and sleeping, and the solution needs to be one that doesn’t in some way impose excessive burden on the employer or eliminate an essential function of the job,” says Colin M. Page, Esq., an employment attorney in Roseland, New Jersey. (For more info about the legal side, visit the Job Accommodation Network at askjan.org.) But short of any legal requirement, a caring company may still be receptive to your needs because it wants happy, productive employees. We rounded up a few health situations you may be keeping on the down-low at work, and how you might benefit from spilling them.

Depression
Nearly four in 10 workers wouldn’t reveal their mental illness to their supervisor, with many fearing it would negatively affect their careers, according to a survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, Canada. The stigma that can be attached to mental illness, including depression, is a big reason why employees stay silent. (Read Why Burnout Should be Taken Seriously.) But depending on the severity, hiding the symptoms of depression at work can sometimes be difficult and, in some instances, may be worth coming clean. About 80 percent of depressed people reported some level of functional impairment, with 27 percent experiencing serious difficulties in work and home life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Arriving to work late or missing whole days can also sync with depression. In a 3-month-period, patients with depression miss about five workdays, says the CDC.

Potential Upsides of Telling: If you’re beginning to develop a pattern of tardiness or not showing up or your work isn’t meeting expectations because of your symptoms, you’re running the risk of being let go. Disclosing your illness gives you those legal protections mentioned earlier and is necessary to pursue a formal request for assistance, such as time off or an exception to a stringent tardiness policy. Your employer may be more motivated to help when you discuss your depression while you are still perceived as a valued worker, rather than waiting until serious work difficulties arise and then asking for modifications, advises the Transitions Research and Training Center at University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Back Pain
We’re a nation of injured backs, and sneaking out for physical therapy appointments, constantly taking walks to loosen up, or asking someone else to carry your boxes, files, or medical patients without explanation may raise eyebrows and some resentment around work. “Back problems are one of the largest areas where employees look for accommodation, especially in the context of lifting restrictions,” says Page. (Can Light Therapy Cure Back Pain?)

Potential Upsides of Telling: Those in charge of the corporate purse strings may be open to purchasing a simple, relatively inexpensive solution, such as an ergonomic chair or a cart to carry heavy files or equipment (something as elaborate as a customized, ergonomic workstation depends more heavily on the size and financials of your company). When you regularly need to come in late or leave early for medical appointments or are caught stretching full-on in the office, your boss will likely be frowning less when he knows the deal. You may also discover that your employer has a ‘light duty’ policy that relieves you of tasks requiring heavy-lifting, says Page, adding that oftentimes this adjustment may only last a certain length of time.

Addiction
Keep in mind: Companies are aware that alcohol and drug-related problems can seep into the workplace in the form of increased accidents, lower productivity, missed workdays, higher turnover, low morale, and theft; drug abuse costs employers $81 billion annually, reports the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. With that said, whether its alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription pills, “you might only want to reveal you have an addiction problem if you’re asking for some time off to attend treatment, which is something in many cases an employer will need to provide,” says Page. “You can’t be terminated for being addicted, but if they find or simply believe you are using drugs or alcohol while at work or even outside of your place of employment, you can get you fired.”

Potential Upsides of Telling: The alternative to disclosing that you have a problem and need to attend treatment is remaining tight-lipped and getting fired for unexplained absences. In discussing your issue with a supervisor or Human Resources, you may also be made aware of your company’s Employee Assistance Program (called EAP), which many workplaces offer these days as a free confidential resource for counseling and other referrals for substance abuse. 

Food Allergies
Let’s cut to the chase: revealing a severe food allergy could save your life. Oftentimes, the fixes you’re requesting for your food allergies are free (for example, making the office peanut-free), which means an employer may be more accommodating. For less-intense allergies, go with your instincts. If you have a friendly relationship with your colleagues and supervisor, casually alerting them to your problem foods, or, as the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) suggests, even hanging an “allergen-free zone” sign in your office or cubicle as a conversation starter, can ultimately prevent exclusion from events that revolve around eating. Who wants to miss those?

Potential Upsides of Telling: Given your needs, you may be granted a designated space for your food in the office kitchen, the permission to use a personal refrigerator, or have a say in the foods served at work lunches and parties, says FARE. Being upfront about food allergies with your coworkers can make them more sensitive about bringing your off-limits foods around and less judge-y with any office-wide changes that are implemented. Also, sharing info about severe allergies with those you’re constantly around, including how to recognize when you’re having a reaction and where you keep your epinephrine, puts an emergency plan in place (that hopefully you’ll never need). (Find out The Surprising Foods Making You Sick.)

Migraines
Migraines can be misunderstood. “Bet she’s slacking again” or “she’s being dramatic” can start buzzing around if you’re shutting your office door to lay down and close your eyes for few minutes, canceling meetings, or wearing sunglasses in front of your computer to prevent your migraine from escalating. Research shows that migraines cause missed workdays and in one Pharmacoeconomics study, sufferers said they were less than half as effective at work when they had migraine symptoms. In deciding whether to talk, consider the frequency of your headaches and whether divulging your migraines might help control your triggers (a huge piece of prevention) or protect your stand-up reputation.

Potential Upsides of Telling: Migraine victims often have sensitivities to light, nose, or smells and you probably already know what’s triggering or exacerbating your problem. Describing your condition to higher-ups will not only explain your occasional escapist behavior, but it allows you to suggest ways to manage those triggers and reduce those episodes. Your company may agree to purchasing individual task lighting instead of using the harsh overhead fluorescent light; an anti-glare filter for your computer monitor; or a noise-cancelling sound machine. If appropriate, your employer may also implement a fragrance-free policy. Telecommuting or more flexible work hours are other possibilities, but they may take more medical proof and push. (Try Naturally Relieving a Migraine with Yoga.)

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