I remember a day this past summer when I drove into work a half hour late. I was late because I let myself sleep in a little after coughing, and feeling sick, all night. I sat down at my desk like it was any other day; no one acknowledged that I walked in late, and no one said anything when I started coughing excessively just minutes after arriving. That's because I worked with a staff of 10, and each of them knew about my cystic fibrosis.
I told my supervisor early on that I have CF. I knew I would have to miss work for doctors' appointments or being sick, and I felt like I owed her an explanation. About a year later, when the rest of my colleagues found out, their initial reactions seemed negative: fearful, pitying, over-protective in a way that they would try to take tasks off my plate. Eventually the unfamiliarity of CF subsided, and my colleagues became like family. We all grew comfortable with CF being a part of my day at work.
After three years of working there, the time came for me to move on and grow in my career. So when I got a new job offer, I was excited for this next chapter.
I have chosen to not share my CF with my new colleagues, mainly because I don't know them very well yet.
Disclosing information about my health is like sharing a personal piece of myself, and I feel that trust needs to be built before sharing.
I have met people in the past who were judgmental when I disclosed my CF, and in those cases I wrote them off. But when you're at work and someone is less than supportive about your CF, it can be difficult to ignore. You may have to see that colleague every day and collaborate with them on assignments. There are people who will try to get ahead in the corporate world by manipulating anything they can to use against you, and I worry that I may not be lucky enough to get the acceptance and support that I got at my last job.
I've chosen to stay guarded in my new environment and not take the risk of telling anyone about CF, including my superiors.
When coughing fits happen at work, people take notice. They say things like, “Do you need a cough drop?” and “You've had that cold for a while now.” or “Do you have the plague?” (Yes, someone actually said that to me). To answer these reoccurring questions about my health, I reply by stating that I have asthma or allergies.
Looking back at how I handled CF at my old job, I have no regrets. But I did learn some lessons. I'll admit, it doesn't get much better than walking into work each day and knowing that you are spending the day with your friends. But I can reflect on some things that I could have done differently when it came to disclosing CF at work:
- I disclosed that I had CF because I felt like I owed an explanation. I've learned that you should never disclose something you're not comfortable with out of feelings of obligation, internal or otherwise.
- I should not have felt obligated to explain myself to anyone anytime I was out sick or at an appointment.
- When I decided that I was comfortable talking about CF, I should have done it in a way that maintained professional boundaries with my co-workers. While I am thankful for my work family, I believe that professional relationships are meant to be kept at a distance in order to stay productive. Not that there is a right or wrong answer, but I am glad that I waited a year to disclose in order to build trust first.
So, to tell or not to tell? My choice is not to tell right now, but my suggestion is that you should do what makes you comfortable. Use your judgment to decide if you feel comfortable enough with your colleagues to talk about CF, but don't ever disclose something just because you feel obligated or pressured. You owe no one an explanation. Every one of your co-workers has struggles and challenges in their lives. You may never find out what their struggles are, and it's up to you if you want them to know yours.