DEAR JOYCE: At age 43, I have not been feeling like myself for the past few months. Last week my doctor diagnosed what seems to be wrong: I could have an unpredictable but potentially debilitating illness that may or may not cause me to miss a fair number of workdays in the years ahead. Retiring is not realistic at this time. Will the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect my job? -- No Initials.
For employees who find themselves in your uncomfortable shoes, the following points may prove useful.
(1) Become knowledgeable about how ADA can be of value to you, an easy task in this Internet age. Briefly, if you can do the job with reasonable accommodations, ADA should protect you -- but the law's language leaves lots of weasel room. At some point you may need to confer with an experienced employment lawyer.
(2) Build bridges of goodwill with supervisors and coworkers. If you're on the minus side of your workplace relationships, start now to improve the way others perceive you. It's easier to justify cutting some slack for a likeable person than for an unfriendly loner.
(3) Keep quiet. Don't immediately disclose the state of your questionable health to anyone at work. You say that you really don't know what to expect and, in essence, that only time will tell. Until your health picture becomes clear, you want to be viewed without question marks dragging you down.
Once your illness is a topic of discussion around the office, you risk being perceived as a "poor sick person." Well-intentioned supervisors won't want to overburden you with challenging assignments. Or you may not be considered promotion material when new opportunities arise. There's plenty of time to disclose your relevant health facts if you take a turn for the worse.
(4) Switch gears if your illness actually progresses and it does begin to impair your work. That's when openness and education about your ailment's nature is your best strategy. Before disclosure, think about whether you prefer to resign, or ask for a leave of absence, or fight to stay on without interruption.
Start with your boss. Be upbeat even if you have to fake it. When you do want to continue your employment, explain what accommodations you'll need, from the necessity of time off for medical appointments to the acquisition of minor equipment to the adjustments of existing furniture.
Conclude your disclosure by making sure that you and your boss have an understanding of what exactly is expected of you. Use quantifiable and specific terms. Don't settle for a kindly pat on the hand and instructions to "take it easy and just do what you can." That way lies your exit plan -- but not voluntary and not on your timetable.
(5) Be creative and resourceful. As time marches on, if it becomes clear that your developing illness will require more than an accommodation or two, consider job redesign. This could include moving from long- to short-term projects, or exchanging customer contact for inside work. Perhaps you'll need to shift to another position, one that may be easier to do from home.
(6) Arrange a presentation. Ask your boss to invite a local health association representative to briefly explain to coworkers your illness and how you are dealing with it. Winning the support of coworkers counts mightily when you're a couple of bricks short in your workload and they have to fill in. The extra work will get old fast if they don't understand what's going on and are not solidly on your side. Don't forget to frequently express your sincere appreciation.
When you're sick but want to work and need to work, goodwill in the workplace is great medicine. Help others fill that prescription for you.
Family-friendly workplace benefits (flex time, job sharing, telecommuting, and so on) were on the rise before the recession of 2008 took hold. I've been wondering recently how bad a whacking this category of benefits has taken.
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