How to Explain a Chronic Illness to an Employer

Three Methods:Disclosing Your IllnessSeeking Help for Your Illness While at WorkExploring Alternatives

Having a chronic illness affects every aspect of your life, even work. Especially work. Since most people spend the majority of the week at their workplace, it’s important to explain a chronic illness to an employer to stay in good graces at your job. Follow these steps for maintaining an honest business relationship with your boss when it comes to a chronic illness.

Method 1
Disclosing Your Illness

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    Decide if you should be upfront. If your chronic illness does not interfere with your job, you don't need to tell your boss about it, even during the hiring interview. But if it has developed while working, or a debilitating flareup has occurred that you were not aware would happen, there are a few people you should talk to.[1]
    • Start with your doctor. Your doctor can inform you best of what accommodations you need and how much you should reveal at work.
    • Find out if your company has a health representative. People in this position are experienced at helping employees with chronic conditions, and they can tell you who you need to inform about your illness.
    • Tell Human Resources (HR). You only need to approach HR if your chronic illness requires special treatment like extra breaks, a different work schedule, and so on.
    • After you disclose special needs with HR, tell employees who work closely with you, including your supervisor. Your HR representative will tell you how to approach these co-workers, whether it is best done in person or through email.
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    Reveal only what you feel comfortable with. Remember that you only need to give your employer information about how your condition may impact you on the job, whether during the hiring interview or after hiring if a new condition has developed. It is not necessary for you to reveal any specifics about your treatments or medications unless you want to.
    • Anything you reveal to your employer about your chronic disease is protected under federal laws, so that may help you in determining how much or little you want to reveal.
    • Allow your employer to ask questions as they wish, but remember they only need to know the information that will make a difference on the job.
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    Request time off when you need it. It’s important to your health to only do as much as you can do. Tell your employer if you need to be out for a length of time due to your illness.
    • Your health is a priority and, by law, your place of employment is required to work with you on appropriate accommodations for your illness, especially if it does not interfere with the quality of work for which you were hired.
    • Discuss the option of a long-term medical leave (FMLA) with your employer if that would be better for your health.
    • Look into filing for FMLA if you start to miss too many days at work. Your company may have a policy about excessive absences that prevents them from helping you if you miss too many days of work without an explanation. FMLA stands for Family and Medical Leave Act.[2]

Method 2
Seeking Help for Your Illness While at Work

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    Find out if your illness qualifies as a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not provide a list of specific disabilities. Instead, the law states that those "qualified individuals with disabilities" may not be discriminated against by employers.[3]
    • The ADA states that ”qualified individuals with disabilities” are individuals who can perform the essential functions of the position, not necessarily marginal or incidental parts of the job.[4]
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    Make your employer aware of your needs. Your employer is required by law, according to the ADA, to make adjustments that will help any employee with a known disability.[5] Let your employer know if there are any environmental changes that they can make to improve your condition and productivity at work.
    • You may be able to get a different chair if you have a chronic back condition or an enclosed office if you are more susceptible to catching airborne viruses.
    • The same goes for working a modified schedule. Make it known if working fewer hours each day would improve your situation, or maybe working more hours for fewer days would be better.
    • Discuss all the possibilities with your employer.
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    Furnish your boss with information. Provide information from your doctor or another resource whether your boss asks for it or not. Being prepared with documentation not only validates your requests for accommodation, it makes you look prepared and credible.
    • Ask your doctor to write your employer a letter or send in a few pamphlets that may help in understanding your illness more fully.
    • If you can find research that explains how your illness is considered a disability, print this out (or make copies) to hand in to your boss.
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    Discuss sick leave with HR. Employees are allowed up to 12 weeks of medical leave for a variety of reasons, including chronic conditions. You should see HR for the two forms you need in order to file for FMLA as soon as you realize you need time off.
    • Employees cannot file for FMLA until they have worked for 12 months and at least 1,250 hours at their company.[6]
    • FMLA is not required to be paid leave, so if an employer decides not to give you sick leave for a time beyond what you have earned, you can't dispute it.
    • Employees who work for employers with fewer than 50 employees are not eligible for FMLA.
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    Report any mistreatment. If you feel you are being treated unfairly by your employer, report it to your supervisor. If this doesn’t work, go to Human Resources. There are laws like the ADA in place to protect you in this situation.
    • You may need proof of mistreatment. Before meeting with an employer, ask if you can record the session on a device, or perhaps dialogue with your boss through email so that the interaction is captured in writing.
    • Keep in mind that as an employee with a disability, your job is to perform the essential parts of your job. If you cannot perform these parts because of flare-ups of your chronic illness, request time off so the illness doesn’t prevent you from being protected by the ADA.

Method 3
Exploring Alternatives

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    Seek lower-stress positions at your workplace. If you are hired for a job when your chronic illness is under control, you may not notice that certain essential tasks are difficult to accomplish. If this occurs, talk to your employer about changing positions within the company.
    • For example, if you were hired for an active position that is making your chronic condition worse, present your paperwork skills to your boss and request to be moved into an administrative position.
    • The opposite can also be attempted. For example, if you have carpal tunnel and typing at a desk all day is causing increased pain, present your skills and ask to be transferred into a position that does not stress the wrists.
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    Find a different job. If there are no positions open in your company that you may be transferred to—keeping in mind that the ADA cannot protect you once you lose the ability to perform the essential functions of the job for which you were hired—it may be time to seek different employment.
    • Be sure you inquire about jobs for which you can perform the essential functions, even when your chronic illness flares up.
    • Let the employer know when you are interviewed of your chronic illness, especially if you believe it will interfere with the essential parts of the position that were listed in the job advertisement.
    • Don’t be ashamed of your limitations. Instead, be confident in what you are able to do and are good at, and employers will believe in them, too. Keep in mind that they are not allowed to discount you because of your illness if you can perform the tasks they advertised for.
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    Check with your illness advocacy group. Many chronic illnesses have organizations that support individuals. And many organizations exist to help individuals with general chronic pain, no matter the origin.[7]
    • For example, the Invisible Disabilities Association exists to help people when they develop chronic illnesses and don’t know where to begin finding assistance.[8]
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    File for disability. If your illness prevents you from performing work entirely, you can apply for Social Security disability insurance. You must run through a gamut of paperwork, including proving that you can’t get hired at any job. But eventually, if you are approved, you will receive a monthly stipend based on your lifetime earnings.[9]
    • Two years on this disability insurance automatically qualifies you for Medicare.
    • If you aren’t working and your income from the disability insurance is below a certain level (different for each state), you will mostly likely qualify for Medicaid, which equals free or low-cost health insurance for those covered.


  • Remain professional during all interactions with your employer, no matter how sick you may feel. This is important for maintaining your credibility.

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Categories: Interacting with Bosses