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How to navigate chronic health issues at work

Workplaces

In many workplaces, needing time off for the flu or a cold can be a simple process. But what about when the health issue is long-term or more complicated?


Here, we chat to Senior Consultant Psychologist at Transitioning Well Dr Eleanor De Ath-Miller about how employees can have these sometimes-hard conversations.

When is it best to share your health condition with your workplace and when is it best to keep the information to yourself?

Dr De Ath-Miller: While there is no general requirement for a person to tell their workplace about their health condition, depending on your workplace, it can help you to get the support you need.

It can also be helpful in a practical sense if you need to take time off for treatment, need your duties changed or work hours adjusted.

In some instances you may be obliged to disclose your health condition – for example, if it affects your ability to perform your role. Also, if your condition could impact your safety or that of others in the workplace, you need to share it.

If your condition relates to a mental health issue, BeyondBlue has some useful tools to help you decide whether to share your health condition, and if you do, how to plan the conversation.

What are some helpful talking points for a conversation about a health condition?

Dr De Ath-Miller: It’s good to come to these meetings prepared – even do a practice run with someone you trust. And remember, your employer is unlikely to have all the answers from that first conversation.

Write a simple list of the main points you want to raise and bring it with you. Consider taking notes to record what you and your manager discuss and agree on.

It can be useful to come with information about:

  • Your health condition (after considering how much you want to share). You may want to talk with your doctors or health specialists beforehand so you have an idea of any treatment or recovery timelines and what leave certificates are available to you.
  • What support you need from your employer to do your job effectively. And sometimes it’s about what you don’t need.
  • What could be done differently to make it easier for you to do your job. This could be flexible working, flexible uniform requirements, a different workstation setup, or even training peers about specific health needs.
What’s the best way to have the conversation? In person, email or over Zoom?

Dr De Ath-Miller: It depends, particularly on the usual lines of communication in your workplace. If you suspect your manager may have a strong reaction or need time to process, an email (or a quick ‘heads-up') before a meeting to let them know you need to talk about a health-related issue might be helpful.

A face-to-face meeting is also a good idea at some point in the process because there are certain cues and insights you get from an in-person conversation that you can’t have over Zoom.

Remember, regular check-ins are important throughout this journey to keep the lines of communication open and ensure you’re getting the support you need.

What about the tricky topics and scenarios? Do you have any advice, for example, on how women can talk about heavy periods or menopausal hot flushes with a male manager?

Dr De Ath-Miller: First of all, it’s good to remember that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable when you’re raising a tricky topic.

When discussing women’s health issues such as heavy periods or menopause symptoms, managers might have very limited knowledge. It doesn’t mean we should avoid talking about these issues – it just means that managers can benefit from more information.

In preparation for a conversation it can be a good idea to:

  • Find out if your organisation has a policy that you can take into the meeting, such as policies covering menopause.
  • Prepare information about the symptoms that are causing an issue for you at work.
  • Determine the outcome you’re looking for from the meeting, and be prepared with information on how your organisation can help achieve this.

When you have the conversation, you can remind your manager that everyone experiences things like menopause and periods differently. The reason you’re raising the topic is because you need support to help you look after yourself and do your best work.

And remember, while you may have been experiencing symptoms for a long time, now might be the first time your manager is aware of your situation (or even discussing the tricky topic in a workplace setting). Allow them time to process and work with you to provide the best solutions. You might want to think about a trial period for any changes to your work. You can start with a short-term plan, and book in a follow up meeting to review.

Finally, if the conversation doesn’t go well, find out if there’s an alternative manager you can talk with so you can get the support you need.

Do you have any tips about sharing health issues with colleagues?

Dr De Ath-Miller: First, it’s important to remember that there’s no obligation to share a health-related issue with colleagues. If you do decide to share, it’s worth thinking about what you’d like your colleagues to know, how the health issue is impacting the way you work and what support you might need from them.

Also, consider whether you’d like to talk to them yourself or you’d like information to come from your manager.

What are employees’ legal rights?

Dr De Ath-Miller: There are several workplace laws that potentially come into the management of health-related issues. These include the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, the Fair Work Act 2009, and the Privacy Act 1988.

There are legal protections requiring employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for an employee with a disability to help them remain in their job. (Here, the term disability also relates to illnesses, medical conditions and work-related injuries.) That could mean time off, flexible work arrangements, provision or modification of equipment, and similar.

It is against the law for employers to share information about an individual's medical condition without their consent.

Are you a manager? Learn how to help employees through health challenges.

Go to Q&A for managers

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Last updated: 
17 January 2024
 | 
Last reviewed: 
21 February 2024