How to Deal

How to Deal: Be Direct about Your Apprehension to Discuss a Health Issue

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 30, 2009; 12:00 AM

For many years, I've had a serious chronic illness that is not curable, but is somewhat treatable. Since having a relapse last year, I've had to work a slightly flexible schedule to accommodate several doctors' appointments. Other than that, I haven't needed any accommodations and it has not affected my work life. The "big boss" of our small organization regularly asks me how I've been feeling, whether the treatments are helping, etc. While I think she is asking out of concern and not in a threatening way, I'm rather uncomfortable discussing this, especially because the course of my illness is unpredictable, the treatments aren't that effective, and the long-term prognosis is not great. I try to keep my answers vague but positive ("Not bad, how have you been?") or change the topic ("Well, I've been getting some great workouts, I found this fantastic new exercise class...") I wonder if there is a polite way I can make it clear to the boss that I am not willing to talk about this, since she doesn't seem to be taking the hint.

There is a fine line between expressions of concern and intrusiveness. On the one hand, we all long to have a manager who genuinely cares about us, who will ask in a more than perfunctory way about how we are doing. On the other hand, we dread feeling cornered by our boss' inappropriately personal questions.

In the process of securing leave and a flexible schedule for the treatment of your condition, you have already had to provide your fair share of details. You and your doctor may have completed forms indicating the nature of your condition, how long it is expected to last, what is required for its treatment, and how this will impact your ability to work a regular schedule. If the "big boss" is basing her inquiries on information obtained during the leave certification process, then I worry about your organization's treatment of confidential records.

Even if your boss is simply following up on things that you told her or others about your health during social conversations, that does not mean that you have forfeited your right to feel uneasy about her questions.

Smaller organizations, like yours, often have the hardest time grasping and implementing basic principles of employee privacy. When you work on a staff that considers itself to be "like family," employees and their managers tend to gravitate toward a friendly and open pattern of communications. The usual interpersonal boundaries and office protocols tend to fall away in favor of a more loose and accepting culture. This type of work environment fosters great camaraderie, but it can also lead to behaviors that, although well-intentioned, are not necessarily benign.

The head of your organization is obviously not going to get your hint. If you want her to stop asking detailed questions about your health that you would rather not answer, your best bet will be to tell her directly. Explain that, although you sincerely appreciate her concern, you are simply not comfortable discussing these things. It will help to get your point across in a non-threatening way if you can briefly mention that the ultimate success of your treatment remains in doubt. Hopefully, your boss will be sensitive enough to understand why someone in your situation might be disinclined to elaborate upon the details.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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