First-class coach

Should I tell the company about my illness?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I'm at executive-board level of a plc and found out recently that I have a serious illness. I feel well now, but my performance at work will inevitably be affected. I've shared the news with my wife but I haven't told anyone in the office yet - nor am I keen to. I want to maintain as much normality as possible and I don't want anyone to treat me differently. What's the best strategy here?

A: Much as I empathise with your wish to carry on as normal, I don't think you have the option of not alerting someone senior in the company to your changed circumstances. Your dilemma as a business leader is made more difficult by the fact that you work for a plc. You have a moral obligation to ensure that the business doesn't suffer through your incapacity, but you also have a legal obligation to shareholders. Your contract of employment probably has a clause that allows your organisation to remove you from your post if you fail to deliver or have an illness that enforces a protracted absence from your work.

At the very least, I suggest you confide in your boss. Prepare for this - find out from the medics what the likely progression of the disease will be and what are the warning signs of deterioration, so that when you broach the subject you've got the data to hand and can speak about it in a calm and factual manner. Make it clear that you intend to go on working only while your performance is unimpaired. Define what your needs will be: you might require extra time off for treatments, or like to move to a less high-powered job. Explain to your boss that you would prefer that as few people know as possible and you'd like them to treat you as before.

You may wish to keep your condition private, but you're likely to have a positive reception if you decide to go public. Nowadays, there's little stigma associated with serious illness, and a recognition that many people undergo treatment and continue to live active and productive lives. This shift has been helped by a number of high-profile people being open about their condition.

If you don't say anything, sooner or later your colleagues will notice some physical or mental change in you, and there's a danger they'll misinterpret your symptoms. I know of a CEO at a firm who was suffering from Parkinson's disease and didn't tell anyone. His colleagues became convinced that his slurred words and trembling were evidence that he had a drink problem. By the time the real cause was revealed, his reputation was close to being damaged - which makes me wonder who was best served by his decision to keep his illness quiet.

It's a fine line between bravely soldiering on as if nothing were wrong and the refusal to accept the new reality. Denial can be a viable psychological strategy for coping with life-threatening illness, but it's not really an option when other people are involved. Although you don't want to be thought of as being of no further value to the business, it is important to allow people to make the adjustments your condition will require.

Any brush with mortality - our own or a loved one's - prompts us to think about what is important to us in life. This can prompt some to address aspects of their existence that aren't as they would wish them to be. Try to stand back and get a perspective on your life and what you might want from it. If you know that a time will come when you aren't as mobile and capable, how would you most like to spend the precious period when you still feel well? If this is difficult to do on your own, find someone to work it through with you - possibly a professional who has no personal investment in what you decide.

If work is really the thing you enjoy doing most, develop a responsible strategy for coping while you're there and then exiting at the appropriate moment. You may need to work shorter hours, or to hand over some of your more arduous responsibilities. Your firm will eventually need to appoint your successor and you can help in ensuring that there is a smooth transition.

But you may find when you take stock that you'd rather step away from the job and use this period of relative wellness to do other things - or just to be, rather than do. If so, be aware that, having been very loyal to your company, you are making a positive choice of what you want to do with your life, rather than being a victim of circumstance.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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