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Disclosing a Major Health Issue to Your Employer

Posted by B&F System Admin | Oct 09, 2013

You're likely working alongside someone facing a serious health crisis. A coworker who is undergoing chemotherapy to treat her cancer. An officemate with a mental illness who requires medication to continue working. Or perhaps even you yourself – about to undergo a heart surgery that requires weeks away from work for rehabilitation and recovery.

Each day, many Americans are faced with a diagnosis of a life-changing or life-threatening medical condition. According to research:

  • One in five Americans has a mental illness
  • One in two Americans has a chronic medical condition – for 25 percent of those individuals, the illness can limit their physical activities
  • Cancer will affect 50 percent of men and 33 percent of women sometime in their lives

In many cases, these employees remain dedicated to their jobs, fulfilling their duties even on days when they don't feel their best. Therefore, it's only fair that employers provide their workers with the same level of respect.

Once you are diagnosed, deciding how to tell your manager can be a nerve-wracking experience. Even if your company isn't supportive, federal law is – there are a number of regulations in place to protect your job in the case of a major health issue if you follow the proper protocol.

Plan your strategy – Once you start to get over the shock of your diagnosis, it's important to think about your next steps so that you can concentrate on your health. Review your company's policy regarding sick leave and short and long-term disability benefits, determine how you will be able to handle your work load, and most important, review federal laws pertaining to health issues. TheFamily and Medical Leave Act allows you to take up to 12 weeks off nonpaid to recover from an illness, and the American With Disabilities Act requires your employer to make adjustments within reason to accommodate your condition.

Decide whether or not to tell – You are under no obligation to disclose your illness to your employer at any time. However, if your condition starts affecting your job, you need to take advantage of a health benefit, or if your medication makes you lethargic or forgetful at work, you will likely need to explain your diagnosis with your manager, and if necessary, your HR department. Schedule a private meeting with your direct manager to discuss your work load, your plan to keep up with projects, and if applicable, your need for medical leave. Be honest about your condition, but don't divulge any details you aren't comfortable sharing.

Discuss work adjustments and alternatives – In many cases, you may want to continue working without taking any time off depending on the severity and extent of your condition. Possible options may include shorter hours, a temporary restructuring of work duties, short-term part-time work, or work-at-home options. If a surgery or other impairment limits your current work duties, you are covered under the ADA, and your company is required to make accommodations in order to allow you to continue performing your job. For instance, you may require low vision equipment so that you can better read your computer screen after a major eye surgery.

When you are diagnosed with an illness or condition, your first priority is to take care of your health. Because of federal law, you can take the time you need to recover and obtain the accommodations needed when you return to work. There is no shame in your illness, and in fact, your willingness to accommodate your job is a testament to your strength and perseverance.

About the Author


When you reach out to us, you will receive a complimentary consultation with one of our skilled Atlanta employment attorneys. During our initial consultation with you, we can help you to better understand your rights and will work with you to determine what course of action is in your best interest. We take great pride in providing assistance based on years of experience negotiating and litigating employment matters to protect employee interests. If you find yourself in need of dedicated legal representation, we are prepared to advocate on your behalf – our goal is always to protect employee victims of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.