health informationWho can resist smiling at the scene of a child holding his hands over his ears and shouting “la-la-la-la-la—I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you?”  We can all relate to the uncomfortable feeling of knowing something that doesn’t feel right to know.  Perhaps our own experience is what fuels our sense of humour about it? I have witnessed similar scenarios in workplaces where employers know a lot about their employees’ health situations, and it can get uncomfortable.  Admittedly, most grown-ups don’t “la-la-la-la-la I can’t hear you” – and I say most because it does happen occasionally – but I recognize the sentiment and the gestures that can mean the same thing.  Gestures like shuffling papers, darting eyes, hand wringing, or even raising a hand like a stop sign in response to an employee sharing a lot of personal and detailed health information.

How Much Health Information Should You Share?

We all know that employers are limited in what health information they are entitled to ask for, but sometimes, employees choose to share much more.  Sharing our personal experiences is part of how we connect as people, and employees are people, right?  So, when someone experiences a health issue that interferes with their ability to function, and work, it makes sense that they may share that experience and information with people around them.  If they need adjustments to their job or time off work, they are likely to have conversation with their employer.  How much they share can vary greatly.

I am often asked for guidance from employees and employers on how much information should be shared and there is no simple answer—it depends!  Some employee-employer relationships are more like friendships; there is a lot of trust and a culture of knowing many personal details.  Other relationships allow for much less personal sharing.  Both situations have pros and cons, but it is a good idea to reflect on the possible outcomes of knowing or sharing very personal details about health in your workplace.

Here are Some Thoughts and Tips for Employers to Consider:

  • Learn about your legal rights and responsibilities around personal health information.  As an employer, you have responsibilities around privacy, around human rights protection, and maintaining a safe and a healthy work environment.  Information you gather creates responsibility.
  • Make sure that all your work processes that relate to personal health are in line with those rules and responsibilities.  For example, don’t ask for information you shouldn’t, and coach and train supervisors on what they should and shouldn’t ask/discuss.
  • Know yourself.  You may have to make difficult decisions and have difficult conversations with an employee.  Consider how knowing more may make you feel, influence your decisions or conversations, and/or change your perspective and relationship with your employee.  Consider possible scenarios in your workplace to help you understand what might happen.
  • Identify your biases and blind spots and set appropriate guidelines for yourself and others that account for them.  If you know that you have strong feelings around a particular health condition, you may need to have someone else on your team communicate with an employee who identifies as having that condition.  I worked with one employer who lost his wife to cancer; when an employee was diagnosed, he assumed that employee would also pass away and wasn’t able to be positive and/or hopeful, so had another person manage the employee’s work accommodations.
  • Set clear boundaries in all your health conversations with employees, based on your decision about how much detail you want.  Use your own language but here is one suggestion: “I really appreciate that you trust me to keep your health information confidential, I won’t share it with anyone, and when I am making decisions about your work role, I will do my best to keep our personal relationship separate.”  Or, “I appreciate that you trust me to keep your health information confidential, but I would prefer to limit our discussion  to how we can support your recovery or help you here in the workplace to be successful.  Are you getting the care that you need?  Is there anything we can provide that would help you?  Are you aware of the services you can access through our EAP?”
  • Be clear on your role with the employee.  Being supportive and caring is of course wonderful, but be clear about your role to support the employee when coming back to work as well.  You may know far more about their own doubts and fears in returning to work, despite their doctor pressuring them to return.
  • Avoid taking on a protecting role; instead be willing to work together if things need to be adjusted.  I have seen many complicated return to work programs fail because the employer was worried about the employee not being ready, and the employer refused to allow them back, or stalled the process when the employee needed encouragement and reassurance that the employer would work closely and ensure success.

The best thing you can do as an employer, if you find yourself knowing too much and feeling uncomfortable making needed decisions, call yourself out!  Acknowledge that you are in uncomfortable territory and get some help to reset your communication with your employee.

Diana Vissers is the Founder and Director of Corporate Services at Work to Wellness Rehabilitation Inc. – a Canadian company providing expert disability management services to Canadian customers. She is in the business of making your place of business healthy, safe and productive. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for the latest news and updates on health, wellness and integrated disability management.