Chronic Communication at Work: Disclosing to a Co-Worker

Should I talk to co-workers about my chronic condition?  And if I do, how much is enough?  And at what point does enough become too much?


Disclosing your chronic condition to a co-worker can just be something you casually mention over lunch, or a whole lot more complicated, requiring you to consider now only what to say and how to say it, but whether you should disclose your chronic condition at all.


If you’re considering having this conversation with a co-worker, here are some ideas to consider:


First, be clear with yourself on why you are disclosing.  Start by asking yourself a question: What am I hoping to gain?  If it’s possible that you may experience symptoms that result in difficulty performing your job, or if you could have need emergency assistance, then it may be advisable for you to disclose your condition to one or more people that you work closely with.   If you have a close relationship with a co-worker, and are sharing your personal lives with each other, then it may feel appropriate to let them know about your illness.  But keep in mind that the workplace may not be the best place for you to get emotional support.


Decide when the time is right.  Pulling a co-worker aside during the workday to have a lengthy conversation may be frowned upon by management, and co-workers may be uncomfortable in this situation.  So gauge when you think the best time is, maybe over lunch or after work.


Take a “need to know” approach.  Decide ahead of time what you want to tell your co-worker about your condition.  This will help you to keep your explanation brief and to the point.  Keep in mind that too much information can lead to misperceptions that may affect your relationship.  In other words, no need to overshare here.


Be clear about your intentions.  This can be as simple as: “I wanted to tell you something about myself, if you don’t mind.  The reason I want to tell you is _____________.”


Be sensitive to how the other person is reacting.  If you sense they are uncomfortable with this conversation – and looking for an exit – that’s a sign they may not want to go any further.  Respond with: “It looks like you aren’t comfortable talking about this.”  And then wait for a cue before continuing.


Offer to answer questions.  Even the questions your co-worker may be afraid to ask.  “Thanks for listening.  Do you have any questions you want to ask?”  Keep in mind that you don’t have to answer any questions you aren’t comfortable with, or that you don’t think are relevant.  It’s as simple as saying, “I’m not ready to talk about that” or “I am not sure how to answer.”


Consider “putting it in writing.”  If there is something you need a co-worker to know, such as what to do if you need help and aren’t able to ask for it, then you might want to consider providing them with written guidance on what to do in the event of an emergency.  Your physician may have a pamphlet that you could give them, or you might find this on the Internet.


Keep your expectations reasonable.  Some co-workers may be more ready than others to talk about your chronic condition.  You might be surprised, for better or worse.  But don’t be disappointed if a co-worker you feel close to isn’t able to have this conversation with you.  Again, you may want to seek emotional from your family members and friends outside of work.


Keep in mind: If the topic is emergency preparedness, it’s advisable to have your boss or your Human Resources office involved.  Know the guidelines, know your rights.