How Should You Treat a Co-Worker with a Chronic Health Issue?

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You might see someone limping with a cane down the halls, and then a few days later they’re fine. Or you know a co-worker has lupus and you are not sure what that means for their role in your project. Or you are just empathetic but unsure. I am not an authority on invisible disabilities, but I do have a few–two autoimmune conditions including Rheumatoid Disease, which affects my movement and produces pain–so I thought I’d take a stab at some imaginary questions. I’m not an HR professional. This might be incorrect! It’s just my thoughts. Feel free to leave other questions in the comments.

Is a person with these conditions (which I’m going to describe as invisible disabilities) less able to work?

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My cane and my heating pad at my desk. Showing up like a rock star.

Unless they are a lumberjack—and maybe even if they are a lumberjack—each situation is unique. Jobs are a fit or not a fit for a wide range of reasons, and determining that fit is the right of the employee, the supervisor, and HR—not you. Instead, check your own thinking: are you assuming that when you see signs of physical impairment, there is cognitive or motivational difficulty? There might be those, there might be others–but it’s probably not something you are qualified to evaluate. I can ask that difficult question because I have a sometimes-visible disability and yet I too berate myself for being less capable. I’m not less capable. In fact, in some ways I’m more capable, for reasons I’ll get into below.

 

The truth is that a person with a chronic condition who is employed is actually a wonder of neuroplasticity and adaptation. People can adapt over time to conditions that would be unbearable if they emerged suddenly. They are forced to grow their lives around amazing challenges and yet make life work, to be functional.

If I have someone with a chronic condition or an invisible illness on my team, is that going to affect my due dates? What if they have to go into the hospital?

Not everyone who has one of these conditions needs time off of work, but every single person alive faces the unknown of illness and hospitalization. Cross that bridge when you come to it, but you do not need to expect any additional degree of unreliability from someone with a chronic condition. That’s a misconception about the nature of chronic illnesses. If there’s a serious issue, the person will make you aware of it.

In what ways is a person with an invisible disability or chronic illness a wonderful employee?

Hahaha—that’s a great question. (I might have planted that one). A person with these conditions can be a great liaison to other employees and to potential customers with these challenges. He or she can help you adapt your business, your website, your services, to the needs of this huge population. A person with these conditions is often a complete wonder of efficiency, because he or she has had to make difficult choices with regard to precious energy and time that can’t be squandered. People with these conditions get as much or more done because they know their own energy levels and work abilities intimately. They are mental and emotional athletes. They often have a high degree of empathy, and in some cases their ability to design work-arounds in their own lives has resulted in enhanced creativity for out-of-the-box solutions.

Should I give the person extra leeway with deadlines, etc.?

That’s not necessary unless they ask for it—like any other employee that needs a flexed deadline. And we all do, for all the shit life throws at us.

Some days a person has visible aids, like a cane, a cushion, limb or hand supports. Does that mean the person is feeling his or her disability most acutely and that it is gone on other days?

Actually, no—not at all. One of the difficulties of an invisible condition is that the discomfort is usually chronic. A particular aid might be called for on a particular day, but the hardware just means that a specific part is having difficulty, and does not even act as a barometer for when the worst days are.

When I see a person with one of these aids, does it help to express sympathy or to ask how the person is doing?

This is a very individual thing, but in my case, the answer is no. I want to try to normalize my condition, to have it be a part of me but not the most obvious part. I want my coworkers to understand that some days I have my hardware and some days I don’t—but that every day is hard. Because every day is hard in different ways, expressing sympathy only when the hardware appears makes me feel a little like the person doesn’t get my condition (it’s fine if they don’t—I barely get it). The worst part, however, is to associate my cane with a sad expression and the need for sympathy. I love my cane. I love it. It helps me walk, it announces my disease as visible, and it does a lot of other things for me. The worst days are the days you can’t see. So when you see me with a cane, just say hi.

Should I suggest various things that have worked for my niece’s boyfriend or that I have seen on Facebook, such as supplements, yoga, etc.?

No. These people are barraged with well-intentioned advice. Think about what it must be like to have a life-long condition that other people assume is easy to fix when in fact doctors have pronounced it incurable. What you are saying to the person is that they have overlooked something obvious and so therefore that they might be a little dumb. You don’t mean it to sound that way, and you’re just trying to be helpful, but it’s a little insulting, and it doesn’t help to build connection.

Should I use this person’s condition against them in power struggles and office conflicts?

Hahah! You’re FIRED! No, seriously: This is probably too obvious to say, but it needs to be said: if you in any way imply that the person is less able to do their job, is weak, is less qualified, or is a burden, you are not only wrong but you are also doing something that is immoral, unethical, and illegal. You are bullying based on physical ability, which is reprehensible.

xoxox

Sonya

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