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Workplace What The...?

Greetings.  It's Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week!  I was thinking about a topic to write about when I came across an article about a woman who worked as an editor for Patch (owned by AOL) and some completely incredulous actions taken by her boss in response to her chronic illness and, later, her pregnancy.

Have a seat, this stuff is insane.

"...every time plaintiff showed signs of suffering from her illness, her supervisor would get visibly upset or sigh dramatically and suggest that her job was at risk if she could not overcome her chronic/incurable illness more quickly"

The woman in the story has Crohn's disease, but really she could be living with any chronic condition.  Workplace issues are common for those with chronic illness.  Who to tell, how much to disclose, under what circumstances are just a few questions that make up what can feel like a minefield to navigate.  I wish I could tell people that supervisors, co-workers, or even human resources will all be understanding about things, but more often than it should people have similar negative experiences as to the one in this story.

I think that managing chronic illness in the workplace is an incredibly tricky topic. Many of my clients bring up a problem with a co-worker or a boss being less than understanding.  Sometimes they have actual examples of what equates to discrimination while others are very worried about what people may be thinking about them because they need to take time off or go home early because they don't feel well.  Underhanded comments may be made without any direct confrontation.

Back to the woman in the story.  Even though her doctor had told her to stop working, she returned due to pressure from her boss:

"Although she was still sick, she returned to full-time work Jan. 17, 2011, but within days, her bosses rebuffed her complaints of fatigue, telling her she should "keep plugging along" and "continue to 'pump out as much content as the other editors' "

How many times does this happen?   It may be pressure from a boss or from lack of sick time or not getting paid at all if you're not at work.  This plight isn't reserved just for people with chronic illness - it seems like we have a major problem in the US with paid time off and unreasonable expectations so that so many of us go in even if we have a steady stream of influenza coming from our nose (but that's a whole other topic).  But for people with a chronic illness that isn't gone in 2 weeks like the flu is, the decision to take time off versus "sucking it up" and going in come much more frequently.

The woman in the story became pregnant during her time at the Patch, and because of the stress and disease flare-up she was experiencing, her doctor deemed her pregnancy high risk and told her to go the Mayo Clinic:

"when she told her boss, 'his response was that he did not agree with her doctors, that there were plenty of good doctors in the Twin Cities, and that there was no need for her to go to Mayo.'"

Ah, the armchair physician syndrome.  I mean, how complicated can Crohn's Disease (or any other chronic condition) be?  It's like because it's chronic, the severity fades over time in people's minds.  There's no way it can be that bad for that long.  I've read Dr. Google, so I know.

A really smart guy at Harvard has come up with the concept of the Psychological Immune System.  Much like our biological immune system that protects us from infections, the purpose of this system is to protect people from experiencing too much negative emotion for too long.  In general, this immune system is a really good thing.  It helps us bounce back from negative events, even serious traumas, and forge ahead.  But, it also comes with biases that can change what is meant to be a positive thing and turn it into discriminatory thoughts and behaviors.  In other words, we're all programmed to have bad things fade over time, including hearing about someone having a chronic illness.  Unfortunately the illness remains even after people have moved along with the help of their psychological immune system.  Throw in a lack of empathy and other personality traits and you end up with the boss at the Patch.

So what can we do?  Check back with us in the next few weeks when I write about how to deal with these pressures in the workplace and what rights people with chronic conditions have, and don't have.

Dr. T

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