Carla King has lived with Multiple Sclerosis for 15 years and is a qualified Career Coach. She has been able to support those with chronic conditions through workplace issues such as disability disclosure and work adjustments. Here she gives expert advice on the sometimes tricky process of disclosing a disability to employers.
I’m going to be honest with you. Disclosing your medical condition to an employer will likely be one of the most nerve-wracking things you’ll ever do in your career.
Disclosure. Could anyone have come up with a less appetising word? It feels so legal and final. However, the reality is that its part of an ongoing, transparent, relationship-trusting conversation with an employer.
We all know the pitfalls and the benefits of disclosing our condition. I have come across clients who are finding things very tough at work and who are struggling, but this is such a shame as there are solutions that may help.
It’s worth remembering that an employer can’t offer support without knowing about your condition, and taking your lead. For example, I’ve had help with my hours, days of work, my workstation, and travel through Access to Work.
When it comes to sharing this information, we fall into three groups: those who are for or against disclosure and those undecided.
Many disabilities are acquired in later life, usually when our career is peaking. I’d like to focus on the undecided group, particularly those in employment or post-offer, who have decided that they want to disclose but aren’t quite sure how to go about it.
Are you ready to disclose your disability?
There are many things that influence our proclivity to share information about ourselves. Recipients can either be detrimental or instrumental in supporting you. Whilst I can’t tell you what the right path is, I can say that for the majority there is always going to be some level of discomfort. So it is important to individually balance the risks with our level of comfort.
Making a list of pros and cons is useful, perhaps adding weightings like percentages on how important the individual elements of the list are. This may even highlight that you are not yet ready to share.
In the days leading up to the conversation, it’s not uncommon to have anything from butterflies in the stomach to losing sleep. After all, it’s not every day you highlight your diagnosis, particularly to relative strangers. For example, when you’re grocery shopping you wouldn’t say, “I’d like to pay for this milk, I have MS. Thanks!”
However, if you want to and/or are struggling then, for your own confidence, taking the reins and having the conversation will pave the way for your employer to support you.
Tell your story the way you want to
As an expert in the way my MS manifests, I’m in a prime position to share my story in the way I wish it to be told. In this way, I am in control of the information an employer receives about me, and I feel enabled by the confidence this gives me.
I’ve disclosed my MS a number of times during my career. My very first conversation was on the telephone, a few hours after my diagnosis (which I would wholeheartedly not recommended). During my few days off, my manager told a colleague.
Needless to say, trust in my team diminished, much of this born from the fact that I hadn’t prepared or pre-empted issues like confidentiality. I had blurted out my story, missed important pieces of information since I didn’t prepare notes, and was still learning about my condition.
My most useful piece of advice for disclosure is to prepare.
The key groundwork is around content. Make two columns on a sheet of paper. In the first, write down all of the things with which you struggle at work. Which of these relate to tasks or the environment? Now prioritise which points affect you the most.
In the second column, against each of the things you’ve written, write suggestions of what might help you. This could be things like changing your environment or hours, shifts patterns, new technology, furniture or time off for things like appointments. Don’t hold back, think of as many things as you can, and if you’re stuck, research potential adjustments online.
The conversation with your employer
Generally, managers will have barely touched disability awareness in their training. Even with many years of experience, they are unlikely to have had disclosure conversations.
I remember disclosing in a one-to-one meeting after starting a role. My manager, hand-outstretched across the table said, “I’m so sorry.” We also have to remember that we’ve lived with this information for longer than our managers and that it is human to react. Subsequent disclosures were better as I felt more guiding of the conversation.
Here are some keys questions you should think about to prepare for the conversation with your employer:
WHERE will you have this conversation?
- The setting should be confidential.
- Make sure you’re not both rushing off somewhere.
- Telephone? Video? You may not pick up on body language so easily so you’ll likely have to adapt what you want to say by being concise.
WHAT do you want them to know?
- Keep what you want to say brief, what are your top three messages?
- Keep to your job description and what happens only at work.
HOW will you conduct the conversation?
- Pre-empt any concerns. Your manager may need reassurance that you are managing what is within your control.
- Bring in your prioritised content.
- Research the Access to Work scheme
I find that preparing for the conversation gives me a boost of confidence to get through a wobble.
The benefits of disclosing your disability
Remember that work adjustments are made to ensure employees are at the same level playing field as their non-disabled peers, and that what’s reasonable is not for you to decide. Ask for what you need.
Remind yourself that the more authentic you’re allowed to be, the better your performance. I can’t express how loyal I feel at work when I feel the support of my employer and a feeling of mutual trust.
In terms of the word disclosure, I reframe this, replacing it with sharing. I know that I am as capable and ambitious as my peers, but that often small adjustments can reap huge benefits. Not just for me but also for my teammates.
My experiences with disclosure have generally been very good, with most line managers asking me how they can best support me. I’ve been able to learn from each experience, to trust my instincts and this has served me well.
More on Disability Horizons…