A shelf fool of books
A shelf fool of books

When my team and I work with employees, to take them through a disability management process, we have permission to access their information – even the most private and personal – so that we can be more effective in our role.  This can be difficult and uncomfortable for the employee at first, but once they realize how the information will help yield a successful return to work, and they feel that we can be objective and considerate with their information, we are able to find out the “whole story.”

Employers on the other hand, are entitled to much less information, which can be especially tricky if the employer thinks they know the entire situation, but actually just know what the employee chose to share with them.  For this reason, we tend to find it much more successful to work with employers when they know little or nothing about the employee’s health situation, and don’t want to know more. This way they can then trust us to help them make decisions about how to manage the work absence and prepare for a return to work that will both benefit the absent employee as well as the employer.  And knowing more about an employee’s health condition can come with some added risk to employers.

We encountered one situation where an employer knew private details about an employee’s chronic health condition; and when that employee was later turned down for a promotion, the employee felt strongly there was discrimination due to that knowledge.   The employer was then required to defend their decision and prove that the choice to turn down the employee for promotion was NOT due to knowledge of the health condition… An unnecessary complication.

Another situation also occurred recently when one of the employees we were assisting – let’s call her Sally – told her supervisor she was having treatment for a shoulder injury from a car accident.  What the supervisor didn’t know was that Sally also had an anxiety condition that was worsened due to the pain of her injuries from the car accident.  Sally felt nervous about telling anyone about her anxiety condition, and worried that it would affect her job.  Her supervisor was surprised and a little suspicious of Sally’s motives when she said she couldn’t return to work right away, even though the job was altered so that she no longer needed to use her shoulder. The supervisor even phoned Sally and expressed disappointment that she wouldn’t be returning to work right away, and put some pressure on her to return.  Sally was quite distressed about the interaction, and she felt pressure to tell her supervisor more, even though it certainly didn’t help her anxiety.  It took some efforts to help the supervisor understand that she may not know the entire health situation when she thought Sally had told her everything. The supervisor’s intentions were genuine, and she truly thought she was being helpful and fair by offering job accommodation.  However, her conclusions and actions were based on only part of the information needed.

As an employer, when you are trying to support your employees back to work, be mindful of the rules around information sharing, and be sensitive to your employee’s right to privacy.  Here are some helpful tips to follow:

  • Know what information you are entitled to. You are entitled to much less information if the injury/illness is not work related.  You may ask about the functional implications of the illness/injury, but not about the diagnosis or specific treatment – those details are private.  You may (and should) ask what job or work changes are needed to support your employee back to work as soon as possible.
  • Emphasize your employee’s right to privacy and be very clear when speaking to them. Tell them that you do not want them to share details. Your employee may feel pressure to tell you, may feel dishonest to hold information back, so it is helpful to take away that pressure.
  • If you still feel inclined to know more, ask yourself why. How will the information help you to support your employee back to work?  Usually the answer will be that private details won’t help you.
  • If your employee shares private health information, keep it private! That means not sharing it with anyone, not storing it in their personnel file, and not using that information to draw conclusions about their ability to work.

For more information and help with facilitating successful Returns to Work – visit our website at www.WorktoWellness.com.

Also, learn how to control health information.

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.