Medical Conditions The Business of Co-Workers?

Question:

We have a co-worker of ours who has had “mysterious” ailments and has had to have numerous doctor visits and surgical procedures performed in the past year. She keeps saying that the doctors do not know what is wrong with her or what is the cause of all of her pain. She has received an outpouring of sympathy from co-workers and I myself have felt bad for her since this condition of her’s has gone on for so long without the doctor’s begin able to figure out what is wrong.

I just found out from this co-worker that her condition is not mysterious at all. She had a voluntary surgical procedure performed and has had to have follow up procedures done – both routine and because of some complications. I know that people’s personal lives and health are ultimately none of our business, but I feel that her telling people that this is a mysterious condition, etc., was not very ethical of her. We wouldn’t have helped out and covered for her any less if we at least knew some of the truth, i.e., that this wasn’t a mysterious condition. She didn’t have to tell us exactly what she had done, but I think she could have simply said that she didn’t want to get into the specifics, etc. This co-worker has created a lot of “drama” over her mysterious condition, i.e., going around and telling people about it as well as people visiting her cubicle. Since I sit across from her and she assists/supports my work (she doesn’t report to me), people have come over to me asking about her, making comments about her doctors not being able to figure out what is wrong with her, etc.

I didn’t say much to this co-worker when she did tell me. She told me outside of work and sort of “blurted it out”. It hasn’t come up since then. Because of the “lies” she has told surrounding her medical issues, should I talk to her about this? I’m not quite sure if I should keep quiet or not, but when people come over and start asking me about her, I feel like I’m contributing to the lies. She never said why she was not up front about her medical procedures, either. I know for a fact she hasn’t been up front to her manager about the medical procedures, either. I think she should be, but maybe in the end it is none of our business…but I’m still having a hard time with it. Signed, Feeling Lied To

Signed,

Feeling Lied To


Answer:

DearĀ Feeling Lied To:

I can imagine how you feel! I can also imagine that your co-worker might feel trapped herself. Perhaps I can suggest some things that you could adapt and find helpful in dealing with this

First, you were correct about your co-worker’s medical situation being a private matter–although she appears to have made it anything but private. Since everyone is talking about it, it can hardly be considered privileged information. Nevertheless, discussing the real nature of her condition WOULD be considered privileged information, and your organization might feel negative about your role in the upset that would follow, whatever the legal situation might be.

On the other hand, to tell a supervisor is not a violation of law or policy, and would be an option. Whether or not you tell a supervisor depends upon several factors: If the co-worker’s condition does not require the accomodations she is receiving from the organization, then, perhaps, you should say something to the supervisor. (For example, if she is getting extra time off, special parking, extra breaks, etc., and those aren’t justified, based on her real condition.)

If others are being distracted severely by issues related to the co-worker’s condition, perhaps you should say something to the supervisor. (For example, if the room temperature is being adjusted, if some aspect of her treatment affects their concentration, etc.) If it appears this will continue forever, or at least for a long time, you might want to say something now. If the course of treatment is almost over, the time-line is fairly short, anyway.

3. Before you say anything however, consider talking directly to your co-worker about it. Your message sounded as though you are someone who has a good heart and puts action to that trait. Thus, I feel confident you would be able to discuss this in an effective way.

I agree with you that what makes this most problematic is the fact that your co-worker has kept the conversations going, by her own behavior. However, keep in mind that most people dislike lying in situations like this. Even criminals confess when they would not have otherwise been found out, because the truth is so close to their thoughts all the time.

The fact that your co-worker blurted the truth to you indicates she wants to be truthful–but likely doesn’t know how. Maybe you can help her, if you think enough of her to do so. It won’t be the easiest thing to do–but I don’t think you will find it too awkward, given that you have conversations with the co-worker about personal things.

What you need to do is give her the support to create another story–one you can also tell– that allows the mystery condition to be finally diagnosed and treated–although the employee does not want to say anything more than that. To some, that might seem like trading one falsehood for another. I view it as giving your co-worker a way out she can take without feeling humiliated.

In an office with which I am familiar, “Claire” told everyone she had a serious condition requiring time off, special diets, rest during the day and so forth. “Jan” knew Claire’s sister, who told her the truth. Claire did, in fact, have a medical condition requiring some extended treatment. But, it was one she was embarassed to discuss at the office.

She had a great deal of pain, fatigue and general discomfort, and it showed. She knew she would be asked about all the details of her special treatments, and had to say something about why she wanted time off. So, she made up another condition to explain it. She didn’t intend for it to sound so serious, but it did to others. As a result she was innundated with supportive gestures!

As you said about your office situation, she probably would have been assisted anyway. But, every offer to help and every nice gesture, dug the hole deeper for her. She said later that she felt like a worm over it!

Jan was able to get the truth from her, in a private conversation, and suggested a way out for Claire. She approached it this way: She said, “Claire, the last thing you need right now is the stress of juggling stories. And I don’t want to juggle stories when people talk about it. And you know they talk!” Claire, who was in tears at this point, agreed that people DO talk, and that was why she couldn’t tell the truth. Jan suggested that Claire tell the supervisor that her condition was much improved and on the way to being healed completely. It might recur now and then in a milder form, but no one need fear for her life any longer. She didn’t, however, want to focus on it any more and preferred not to talk about it. End of story. That would send a clear message to the supervisor, given federal law about such matters.

Claire talked to her supervisor. At the same time Jan told the agreed-upon story to others, emphasizing that it was in Claire’s best interest to not keep talking about it. Everyone understood and complied.

In the next few weeks Claire continued to need to leave work early for appointments; she still needed to go to her car at lunch and nap; she still showed signs of her condition. But no more was said about it, and she felt much better mentally.

She told Jan later that she no longer felt she must act the part of being ill with the other condition, so that helped her psychologically as well. In fact, she recovered from the actual ailment sooner than she expected.

She may have to deal with recurrences of her condition, but told Jan she was not ever again going to discuss her malady at work and would politely shut anyone down who asked her about it.

The person I’m calling Jan, said “Claire” was so grateful it was sad to think of the pressure she must have been under with the false story!

In your situation, perhaps you can have a private conversation with your co-worker and say that you’ve been thinking about what she told you and know that must add stress at a time when she least needs it. You might want to say that you know telling a fib would not be something she’d ever want to do. (Fib is a much better way to say it, in that context!)

Suggest that it would be easy to remove that stress and never have to worry about it coming back to haunt her, if she dealt with it now. She could talk to her supervisor and supposedly tell you, and you could tell others, that her condition is much improved. The exact nature of it may never be completely known, but it almost certainly involves a combination of inflammatory disorders. The doctor is now prescribing something which ought to help over time. But, talking about it adds to her stressful feelings, so she would like to keep discussions about it to a minimum.

If someone asks her about it, she should be like a broken record and say the same thing over and over. Or, simply tell people she’d like to fully recover and not keep discussing this matter, so she’d appreciate it if they’d help her with that.

If you make changing the story in this way sound plausible and possible, your co-worker may jump at the chance to make things right.

If she says no, that she won’t be having problems much longer and would rather not try to squelch the rumors and stories, then you have done your best. At that point you can decide if the story affects work.

If it doesn’t truly affect others, let it go. She will likely always feel worse about it than you do. If it does affect work, or the actions of others, then perhaps you might want to give your co-worker an ultimatum.

Tell your co-worker that you can’t continue to allow other employees to spend their time, money, concern or whatever, under false pretenses. Tell her you will help her by telling others the story you two decide upon–but only if the story downgrades her condition to the appropriate level.

If she sticks with her first story, you will be the only one who knows the truth. (Unless she has told others and they, too, aren’t telling!) Maybe it will help you feel better if you consider that no serious harm is being done and that she has enough issues as it is.

I can understand, in part, why someone might not tell the full truth about an elective surgery. Someone is bound to make remarks, give advice, etc. It’s bad enough when one has no choice! Maybe you can be charitable in this case and let it go. If others ask you about it, say that you get the feeling she’s much improved and on the road to recovery. That might help tone everything down.

This is a challenging situation, that’s certain! We would be very interested in hearing what happens, one way or another. Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.