In capitalism, illness isn't welcome in the workplace. Also, let's face it, from way back when it was associated with negatives. Those could have been evil spirits or a lousy alignment of the body and the mind. Have cancer? Some are thinking you might have had a bad attitude bring that on.
Sure, there are exceptions. For former active alcoholics, which is now classified as a disease, the illness gives an edge. That's if they then train to become alcohol counselors. At Johns Hopkins University, mood disorder expert and professor Kay Redfield Jamison leveraged her own bipolar condition for unique credibility. Senior executives at public companies have to disclose their ailments to shareholders and other constituencies.
Overall, though, cagey professionals keep their illnesses under wraps or low profile. We recall FDR never let himself be seen in a wheelchair and JFK strove to transmit an image of vigor. There was a brief time in history, the chatty days of Oprah, when people gleefully disclosed chronicles of all kinds of illnesses. They were seemingly rewarded with compassion. But that period is over. Such data can and will be used against you.
Then there are the tricky situations. The boss is concerned about a middle manager. For about five weeks he has been looking bad. After checking with Human Resources and Legal, the boss lets the manager know about the kinds of treatment options available through the Employee Assistance Program. There is no singling out any one option such as paid rehab for substance abuse or counseling for divorce.
Last night that manager told his 12-step group in central Connecticut that he was torn. If he took the help on the company's dime he would have a shot at sobriety. However, he noted, "I don't know what I would be coming back to." He assumed his illness would be held against him. He just couldn't assess how much damage it would do to his image. If he didn't take the help he could wind up fired.
Of course, one takeaway is to avoid illness. Right eating, optimism, doing what the workplace demands - all that could help keep us healthy. Another takeaway is that sometimes we have to cave and make the illness public. There is a chance there will be empathy. There is also the probability that we will be sidelined, at least temporarily.