Chronic Communication: Is my Boss Expecting Less of Me?

Jack was sitting with a group of co-workers at lunch when a shipment of office supplies arrived. They all stood up to help move the boxes into the storage room.


Jack’s boss was also present. And he said to Jack: “Why don’t you sit this one out.  They can handle it.”


A few of his co-workers glanced in Jack’s direction when his boss said this, then quickly looked away.


Jack walked back to his work area before his co-workers returned. He felt embarrassed, humiliated.  He and his boss had an understanding that Jack’s chronic condition might cause him to be less energetic on some days, and even result in occasional absences.  But Jack also thought they had an understanding that he wouldn’t volunteer for anything he wasn’t up to doing.  Apparently not.


“Does he think I am going to fall apart?,” Jack asked himself? “Do I seem that incapable of pulling my weight?  What else does he think I can’t do as well as everybody else?”


The rest of the afternoon, Jack kept to himself. His co-workers seem to get the hint, because they left him alone.


Have you been in Jack’s situation? On one hand, having a boss who understands and accommodates your chronic condition is a good thing.  On the other hand, nobody likes to be singled out and told they aren’t up to a task, and made to feel like they can’t be trusted to make that decision themselves.


So what can Jack do about this? Here are some ideas:


A casual comment might do.  Jack might catch his boss alone in the coffee room, or duck his head into his boss’s office, and say something like: “I just want to let you know I appreciate that you are watching out for me.  But don’t worry, I won’t offer to do anything I might not be up to.”  It can be as simple as that.  No need to turn this into something more than it needs to be.


Or was the comment not so casual?  Sometimes an offhand comment, like Jack’s boss made, can have a much deeper meaning.  For example, if Jack’s boss had made similar comments before, or had shown in other ways that he felt Jack needed to be monitored, then the issue may be more complicated than unloading boxes of office supplies.


If so, a conversation might be needed.  Jack might want to consider having a sit down with his boss.  The best way to start a conversation is on an upbeat note: “I really like working here and want to do my best to make a contribution.”  This could be followed by providing a few examples of times when it felt to Jack like his boss was concerned about his health.  Again, it’s a good idea to keep things positive and not turn them into accusations: “A few situations have come up recently that I would like to talk to you about.  For example, last week in the lunchroom ______________. “  And then briefly describe the situation and how you felt.  Be clear about your intention: “I want to make sure you know that I intend to perform to the best of my ability.  And rest assured I will let you know when I need help.”  Be ready to listen.  For example, Jack might have learned his boss had assumed Jack wanted to be excused from unloading the boxes.


Actions speak loudest.   Maintaining an upbeat, can-do attitude is the best way to help your boss and co-workers to feel confident that you’re in the game.  If you project enthusiasm, your boss and co-workers may be less likely to make assumptions about your capabilities.  But when you’re not feeling up to it, don’t push yourself too hard.


As always, know your rights.  If you feel you are being treated unfairly in any way, then review the employment policies at your job or consult with your HR department.  Don’t allow unfair treatment to escalate.


You, your boss, and your ability to participate at your workplace.  Keep the communication positive, honest, and open.