Ezra Bailey—Getty Images
By Martha C. White
August 29, 2016

While Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are busy trading barbs about each other’s physical and mental fitness for the presidency, there are employees at workplaces all across the country who are wondering how they’re going to break it to their boss that they have cancer, or have been diagnosed with a chronic condition like diabetes or Chrohn’s disease.

Talking about your health at work is always a touchy subject (presidential candidates: they’re just like us!). But there are definitely ways to navigate the topic without jeopardizing your career, even if the nature of your ailment is likely to impact your attendance or performance.

This is what HR experts advise you should say, and when—as well as what to keep to yourself.

Get out in front of it. If the health issue you’re dealing with is likely to affect how well you can do your job, it’s best to give your boss a heads-up, said California employment attorney Heather Bussing.

“It is much more effective to let people know in advance so their expectations reflect what is happening at the time,” she said. “It’s harder to get the same level of understanding after something goes sideways.”

Start with your supervisor and HR department. “The employee should talk with their human resources contact and/or their direct supervisor first and foremost,” advised Art Glover, an expert panelist with the Society for Human Resource Management. HR should be able to walk you through any questions you might have about taking time off and under what circumstances the Americans with Disabilities Act might cover you. Having both your boss and a human resources manager in the same room also gives you a good opportunity to bring up any expectations or concerns about confidentiality.

Do your homework. Although your HR department should help you in this capacity, it’s to your benefit to do some research on your own as well, Bussing said. The ADA, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (a.k.a. HIPAA), Family and Medical Leave Act, and a patchwork of state-level laws all could come into play depending on your circumstances.

Consider getting legal help. If you’re stumped, or if you’re concerned that revealing your health status might lead to a negative stigma (if you are HIV-positive, for instance), you might want to talk to a lawyer who specializes in workplace and disability issues to find out what your rights are before you broach the subject at work.

Ponder what might make your job easier. The ADA gives you the right to get “reasonable accommodation” for a serious or chronic health condition, but exactly what that means in your case can vary considerably. “Reasonable accommodation can mean many different things depending on the health issue, but includes time off for treatments and recovery and often things that make the work both possible and more comfortable,” Bussing said.

So give it some thought, possibly even before you talk to your boss. Could you work from home on days when traveling to the office would be a challenge? Would an alternative seating arrangement make a big difference in your comfort level? If you need to avoid stairs or be in close proximity to the bathroom, ask to have your workspace moved to a spot that meets those needs.

Keep your doc in the loop. “Consult [your] healthcare provider on any limitations that may be anticipated,” advised Mark Fiala, president of Organizational Architecture Inc. You might be asked to provide some medical validation for any changes you’re seeking, so make sure your doctor knows what your job entails and can give you (and your company) feedback on what modifications will let you continue to do your job.

Think about what to share with colleagues. Technically, you don’t have to tell your co-workers anything, Fiala said. “Management is bound to protect the employee’s private health information and confidentiality.”

But it might make things a little easier if you do. “There is certainly something to be said for sharing basic health information with a trusted co-worker,”Glover said. “A kind, sympathetic co-worker or supervisor can provide much needed support and a shoulder to lean on.”

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