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Sick days: How much do you need to tell your work?

(Photo credit: iStock/Yuri_Arcurs)

Most of us have shown up to work with the sniffles at one time, and occasionally there’s a virus that keeps us away from the office (and if you’re contagious, please do everyone a favour and stay home). But what do you do when your illness goes beyond the common cold? How much information are you supposed to divulge, and what do you keep private? Read on for tips about how to navigate your way through ongoing and personal health situations in the workplace.

1. Confide carefully

Physicians discuss very personal health information with patients each day. Outside the doctor’s office, however, oversharing may not be the wisest choice — especially if your health condition is unlikely to affect your job performance.

Mental illness, which is both prevalent and unduly stigmatized, is one example: a 1999 study in the North American Journal of Psychology showed that financial-sector employers were seven times less likely to consider hiring an applicant with treated anxiety and depression than one with a physical disability. That said, if your get-well plan includes an at-work support system, confide in a few close colleagues you trust.

2. Timing is everything

Don’t wait until the last minute to disclose issues that will affect your work life. If you suspect that a stress-related ailment may persist due to an issue in your personal life — such as divorce proceedings or a loved one’s illness — give your employer time to figure out how to accommodate you before your productivity and wellness suffer.

A decade-long study of British civil servants revealed that those who consistently showed up for work despite being sick doubled their risk of heart attack and cardiac death. Knowing your limits — and when to tell your team you need to step back — is essential.

3. Honesty is (usually) the best policy

Is it ever okay to lie when asked about a possible health condition? The short answer is no — for ethical and medical reasons. Interestingly, participants in a recent study from Indiana who were told to stop all lying for five weeks reported significantly fewer physical complaints, including headache, sore throat and nausea.

But while it’s important to be honest, it is absolutely fine to honour your own need for for privacy. For women, health issues related to early pregnancy or fertility treatments may be particularly sensitive. Deflect well-meaning inquiries from coworkers by acknowledging that you’re feeling under the weather, thanking them for their concern, and changing the subject.

4. Doctor dos and don’ts

One of your greatest allies for staying well at work is your doctor, so help us help you with this advice. Before your appointment, document when your illness started, the chronology of your symptoms, and any treatments you’ve already tried. Book a visit sooner rather than later so we’re not stuck vouching for health problems that began months ago. Keep in mind that many offices charge fees for documentation like sick notes, but that these costs are often covered by insurance policies — so read the fine print.

Last but not least, be truthful. If unmanaged stress is repeatedly making you skip work, don’t chalk up your absence to bogus back pain or a sham stomach bug. That way we can collaborate honestly on how to get you back to your best.

5. It’s all about you

In the end, whether or not you choose to divulge a personal health challenge on the job depends on factors only you can weigh like its effects on your performance, your workplace culture and individual comfort level. If you do opt to keep things on the down low at work, don’t forget to tap into outside resources like family, friends and health-care professionals for help and encouragement along the way.