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Talking about a medical condition

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

Employees often fear that disclosing a health issue to management may change others’ perceptions and limit career opportunities. Providing a supportive environment in which such matters can be discussed, however, is vital to maintaining productivity and reaching solutions. 

“In the initial discussion, I encourage managers to focus on the employee’s needs and questions, not the employer’s,” says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better. “It may be hard for an employee to muster the courage to divulge this at work. He or she may be scared—because of the diagnosis, its impact on life in general, and how you will react to the news.” 

Steere suggests thanking the employee for coming to you and saying, “This must be hard to talk about. How are you and your family doing, given this news?” This shows care for the employee as a human, not just as a worker.

Discussing support 

Encourage the employee to share whatever is on his or her mind. Ask how the company can best support the person during this time. Steere recommends taking detailed notes and then paraphrasing what you heard. For example, “So, your ideal scenario would be to work part time during your treatments, with the goal of returning to full-time status in eight months.” Avoid committing to a specific action unless you have such authority. Instead, promise a date for getting back to the employee with more information.

Settling details 

Managers who address employee concerns first usually find the person open to facilitating business matters. While it may be impossible to say how long someone will be out or unable to fully contribute, it is important for a manager to try to get a clear picture before making decisions. 

Other staff members may be able to take over some duties, but be realistic when assessing the situation. As Steere notes, “It’s not fair to ask co-workers to work overtime for six months straight. They may burn out or become resentful. If an employee will be out of commission for a long time, you may need to hire additional help.” 

Finally, tackle the subject of privacy. Some workers may not want details of their illness revealed. Knowing how the person wants the subject approached can limit hurt feelings.

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