How to disclose an illness on your own terms at work

By Maxine Ali,
updated on Jul 26, 2021

How to disclose an illness on your own terms at work

Choosing if and when, as well as what, you disclose to an employer about chronic illness or disability can feel daunting. But the important thing is it’s your choice – and with this guide, you can feel prepared to approach that conversation with confidence

Everyone deserves to feel safe and supported when disclosing a chronic illness or disability at work. However, it isn’t always easy to open up about a health condition to your employer, especially if you’re worried about it impacting your opportunities or relationships in the workplace.

While the decision to disclose an illness or disability is highly personal, if you want or need to disclose an illness with your work for any reason, here are some steps you can take to share your experience on your own terms, and feel more in control throughout this often nerve-racking process.

Know your rights

Telling your employer about your illness or disability can be daunting enough without the added fear of being disadvantaged by your disclosure. Because of this, it is worth familiarising yourself with legislation on the subject.

Currently, it is against the law for employers to discriminate against you because of an illness or disability. This means that you are legally protected against unfair treatment, including in applications, interview arrangements, job offers, terms of employment – such as pay, promotion, transfer, and training opportunities – dismissal or redundancy, as well as discipline and grievances.

Under the Equality Act 2010, your employer is also required to make any ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the workplace in order to support you. This could include flexible working hours, time off for treatment, adjustments to the nature of your work, or providing equipment to aid you with your job.

Hopefully your employer is already aware of their duty to support you, and will receive your disclosure with understanding and recognition of their responsibility to you. In case you are worried about any potential unfair repercussions however, knowing how you’re protected can ease some of this stress.

Though these rights won’t necessarily prevent potential microaggressions, they may at least reassure you that, should you be penalised at work because of your disclosure, the law is on your side.

In case you ever need it, Inclusion London have compiled a list of places that offer legal advice on disability discrimination.


Figure out when the timing is right

You might be considering not only whether to disclose an illness or disability, but also when. If applying for a new job, should you say something in your application? Should you wait until after you’ve been offered a role? If you’ve been in your current job for a while, but have recently been diagnosed, should you notify someone right away or wait and see how this impacts your work?

In most cases, letting your work know as soon as possible means that you can be given support right away. This is particularly important if you will need modifications in order to travel or take part in an interview, to carry out your job, or when it comes to taking time off work.

It’s also OK to take some time to come to terms with a diagnosis and monitor how your condition affects your work before having a conversation with your employer. You should never be made to feel pressured to discuss anything until you’re ready. However, if you experience changes in your job performance or output, try to broach the subject before your manager is likely to notice, so that you maintain autonomy over the when and how of your disclosure.

Decide how much you feel comfortable sharing

You are not obligated to disclose any information that you do not feel comfortable sharing. With this in mind, it is worth considering how much or how little about your disability or illness you want to tell your employer and colleagues.

You might prefer to keep it simple and straight to the facts, communicating only your health needs without even necessarily disclosing your condition. Setting out a strictly ‘need to know’ policy can help keep in place any boundaries you would prefer to maintain when talking about your health at work.

If you feel comfortable and it is safe for you to do so, you can also share more details about your experience, particularly from past scenarios that you have found challenging at work.

Set up a conversation

Draft an email to the relevant parties arranging a date and time to discuss your health. At this stage, you should decide who you are going to disclose to. While you’ll probably need to speak with a member of your employer’s human resources (HR) team, you may prefer to start with someone you work more closely with and trust, who can help with adjustments to your work and provide support.

Just ensure that the appropriate people at your workplace have been fully informed about your requirements, so that you are more protected against employment discrimination.


Write down what you need

Before you have a conversation, make a list of any particular accommodations or adjustments that will help you work. This might be extra equipment, such as specialist computer software or ergonomic hardware, physical changes to the working area to make your job more easily and safely accessible, or changes to your working patterns or delegating some duties to make time for treatment. You should be able to ask for an occupational health assessment to determine how your needs can be met.

Maintain an open dialogue

Most disclosures don’t conclude in one conversation. It can take a few discussions and some trial and error over several weeks or months to figure out what exactly works for you, and what your specific needs are at any given time. It’s therefore important to keep up an ongoing dialogue and build a support network within your workplace, who you can check in with regularly, and who will be an advocate for you.

The main thing to remember is that the purpose of disclosing information is to ensure you feel as comfortable and supported in your role as possible. The outcome should hopefully see you with better resources, or a role that adapts to your needs where reasonable, so while the initial conversation may seem scary, the end result is a better working environment that allows you to thrive – which is best for everyone!

To connect with a counsellor who can support you with talking about your mental health at work, visit counselling-directory.org.uk

By Maxine Ali

Maxine Ali is a food, health and feminist journalist, a linguist, and body image researcher. Follow her on Instagram @maxineali

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