Revealing a Serious Illness at Work, Hemisphere Magazine

Hemisphere Magazine, March 2005 

Revealing a Serious Illness at Work

Anyone who's had a major health problem will tell you the last thing you need is more stress. But when and what to tell your employer are decisions you'll have to make. Before sharing the news, consider this practical advice.

By Patricia Olsen/Illustration by Michael Woloschinow

IN 1991, WHEN CHELL SMITH WAS DIAGNOSED with cervical cancer, she was a senior manager in the Ernst and Young consulting unit that would merge with Capgemini in 2000. Smith received the staggering news on a Thursday and told her boss, the senior partner in charge of sales, the following Monday. She not only survived a recurrence of the cancer in 1995, but last year she was named chief executive of Capgemini for the Americas. Prior to that, she was head of global operations at the technology, consulting, and outsourcing firm.

The question arises whether Smith would do the same thing if she were to receive the diagnosis now that she leads the company. Might she take more time to let the news sink in or discuss a course of action with her doctors first? Not a chance, she insists. "It's far more devastating to wait. You've already missed some work if you're seriously ill," she says. "The rumors are worse than the announcement."

Executives with major health problems were in the news in 2004. They included Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer Inc., who announced he had a rare but curable form of pancreatic cancer, and Kraft Foods Inc. chief executive Roger Deromedi, whose viral infection and acute dehydration landed him in the hospital for two weeks. But the matter of revealing a serious illness at work is not only important for upper-echelon corporate leaders; it's concern for anyone in business. Employees at every level wrestle with what to say about their illness, when to say it, and whether there will be repercussions.

Chief executives and other top managers have several audiences to consider. Investors, employees, and boards of directors all have a stake in the top management's health. The media is no small consideration, either. And for those at the top, announcing an illness is only half the problem. Choosing a substitute for the executive office is a challenge far different from deciding who will take over another employee's duties, says Gene Morrissy, a consultant with RHR International, a management psychology firm in Wood Dale, Illinois. McDonald's CEO James Cantalupo's death from heart failure in 2004 illustrates the importance of having the No. 2 person ready for anything. "Companies need to think long-term and develop individuals to step into a top executive's place at any moment," Morrissy says. Not only that, he adds, but all executive's place at any moment," Morrissy says. Not only that, he adds, but all executives should be building the skill sets of the people who report to them in case illness strikes.

Stephen Viscusi is a workplace expert for Good Morning America on ABC and the host of a syndicated radio show called On the Job. He frequently gets call from employees who fear telling their bosses that they're ill, such as those who develop AIDS. The shock of the diagnosis itself can impair the job performance of anyone affected with a life-threatening illness, he says. Even with modern medical advances, statically, workers with AIDS are more likely to experience a health problem, such as pneumonia, that will require an absence from work. Viscusi cautions callers to be practical and not rely too much on an employer's sympathy.

Viscusi adds that, for most people, and especially single parents, disability insurance is even more important than life insurance. The Catch-22 is that once someone becomes ill, it's next to impossible to get disability insurance unless it's obtained through an employer's group plan, so he recommends private disability insurance in addition to a plan that a company might provide.

You may well find yourself dealing with a grave illness both as a manager and as an employee, as happened to Monique DeChaine, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Priority Pharmacy, a national online retailer and distributor in San Diego. DeChaine suffers from ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. In 2002, six months after she joined the company, her chief executive planned a three-state road trip during which DeChaine and he would visit clients. She had no choice but to reveal the seriousness of her illness. "I told him I might need to make frequent stops. It was embarrassing, but it worked out well. He said he was pleased that I felt comfortable enough to talk to him about it," she says.

About six months after DeChaine's road trip, one of her employees divulged that he needed surgery and was afraid of what it would mean for his job. "I told him his health should be his No. 1 priority and not to worry about his job, that it would be here when he got back," DeChaine says. Of course, not everyone will have a boss who has been there him- or herself, and DeChaine's example may be the exception rather than the rule.

If you become ill and think that telling your boss may be a problem, make sure you know your rights beforehand. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 covers not only disabled employees, but also those who fall sick but can continue to work if allowed certain accommodations, such as the option of telecommuting. That was the case with Jennifer Jaff, a partner with the law firm of Killian, Donohue, & Jaff LLC in Hartford, Connecticut, who has Crohn's, another gastrointestinal disease. After her illness flared up, she had to arrange to work entirely from home during the past year.

During her career, Jaff has had to approach a supervisor about her illness more than once. In the mid-1990's, when she worked for the Connecticut attorney general's office, she experienced an intestinal blockage on a day she had an important meeting. "I got dressed, I went to work, and then I went to the emergency room," she says. Jaff needed surgery and a couple of weeks to recuperate. "But it wasn't a problem at all for my supervisor. I told him I was in the hospital and I'd be back as soon as I could. We didn't even have a lengthy conversation."

It didn't go as well at her next job, where she worked with an advocacy group in Washington, DC. After she told her supervisor that a test revealed her illness was acting up, "I was fired a week later, with no explanation," she says. Jaff can only think that her boss assumed she wouldn't be able to put in the required hours. Jaff had another lawyer write a letter to the group, they agreed to a settlement, and the matter never went to court. While no one wants to be in a situation in which an employment lawyer must be consulted, occasionally it may be unavoidable.

It's understandable that anyone hearing disconcerting medical news would experience anxiety, says Dr. Salvatore Maddi, professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, whose book Resilience at Work was published last month. But be straightforward if you're diagnosed with a serious illness, he advises. Don't sugarcoat the announcement, and don't minimize your health problem. Most important, show that you're taking action. If you're a top executive, reassure everyone about the future of the company, he says.

Company leaders need to set employees' minds at rest about their own future, too. Maddi advises that no matter which level of an organization you occupy, you should understand that people's reactions to your news may be worse that the diagnosis.

"Sadly, people have a tendency to alienate themselves from a person with a serious illness," Viscusi says. And should you feel you need some time before telling anyone at work, don't feel guilty. "It's really none of anybody's business in the beginning," he says. "But tell your boss about your illness before you tell a colleague," he cautions. You don't want your superiors to hear the news from someone else.

Last year one of Chell Smith's kidney's stopped functioning because of complications from chemotherapy and radiation years earlier. She had it removed last July. Once again she found herself announcing that she was ill and would need tome off. This time she addressed the board of directors. She was out of the office less than two months, returning by the end of August. But, of course, not all experiences are that seamless. With diseases such as cancer, the future is never certain. Indeed, nothing in life ever is-a major reason why knowing how to deal with medical setbacks is an important business skill.

Patricia Olsen lives in New Jersey and writes about business, technology, and health. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Business Travel, Financial Planning, Diabetic Living, and other publications.