MSer and career coach Carla King discusses disclosure of health issues in the workplace
As a career coach, my job isn’t to know everything about careers. It’s about using skilful questioning to help clients achieve their career goals. Having said this, when it comes to disclosing disability or chronic conditions at work, there are common themes where it helps to have had personal experience.
I personally hate the word ‘disclosure’ – it implies an admission and a big ‘reveal’, like Batman confessing his identity under duress. Just like Batman, I blurted out my story because I felt obliged to. Unlike fiction, we can find disclosure a dilemma, particularly when the majority of symptoms are not visible to others. Tricky, when many of us find ourselves either diagnosed in an existing role, or in recruitment stages for a new job.
Much of how we approach disclosure hinges on who we are and our individual circumstances. If you know the people you’ll disclose to, you may find this easier. If you don’t, you’ll be sharing your multiple sclerosis (MS) with virtual strangers (in all senses of the word). If you know you prefer to be transparent about MS, your decision to disclose is already made. If your disability is obvious, or have ongoing needs relating to your MS, disclosure is less likely to feel like a choice, and being up front about these needs becomes very necessary. If neither of the latter two options apply, then you must think about your level of comfort with risk.
To clarify ‘risk’, there are many ways disclosure might play out. MS is sensitive, personal information and, in itself, doesn’t limit my capability to undertake work tasks. I don’t know how managers will react to my news, how they’ll perceive me, or where the information will go. I’m highlighting this not to put you off but to give balance to the risks that are too often downplayed, and to reassure you that it’s perfectly natural to have these worries.
From experience, I know that disclosure isn’t just one conversation. In reality, the conversation kicks things off, often really, really good things, and if there were issues, mediation can be helpful, as can legal challenge through the Equality Act (replacing the DDA in 2010).
Is there anything we can do to help make disclosure a more positive experience? I often talk to clients about the circles of influence and control. What is within your control? At the very least, what can you influence? What can you do nothing about or impact? The way in which this initial conversation goes is absolutely a place of influence, as long as you plan beforehand. I’d never advise walking into this situation unprepared or to blurt out your diagnosis, as I did. This takes away an MSer’s precious control, and means you’re unlikely to convey what you really want to say.
So, my advice is to put aside a quiet time, and to focus on the following three things
- Disclosure conversations are often time-limited. What are your main points? Write them down, rank them in order of priority.
- Keep it professional, not personal. Whilst there is always emotion involved, particularly if it’s your first time disclosing, facts will keep the emotion at bay and you on task.
- Be clear and specific about your needs, even if this is simply about your need for confidentiality.
I’ve had disclosure conversations as both an employee and manager, but the majority have gone well and my needs have been met. Don’t be afraid to admit your fears and to talk it through with someone. Discussing disclosure might give you confidence in whatever decision you ultimately make on sharing your MS at work, just don’t blurt it out like Batman.
Carla works as a Career Coach and was diagnosed with MS in 2008. Carla often supports MSers through diagnosis and beyond. She also presents to audiences from the MS community and the MS field. Carla is the author of a blog about living, working and parenting with MS, called My MS Bully and Me.