Should I Tell My Employer and Coworkers About My Crohn's?
Last updated: March 2023
Like many Crohn's patients, I was diagnosed in my 20s. And, while I am grateful to not have been sick through high school and college, being diagnosed as a "young professional" was just as difficult, especially in my professional life – not so much because I was physically sick, but for the fact that I would be judged and it could possibly hurt my career.
Should I tell my employer and coworkers about Crohn's?
I remember laying in bed one night after my new diagnosis and wondering what I should tell my business partners. As a Financial Advisor just starting my career, I did not want to be seen as the "weak link" on the team and was afraid that showing weakness could only hurt my chances of success.
However, after being hospitalized for 3 weeks during my first flare, I had no choice but to tell my team. They were completely understanding and encouraged me to focus on getting well rather than what was going on at the office, but they cautioned me about sharing the news with my clients.
Hiding the truth about Crohn's to my clients
They would say, "Clients want to know their advisors are always watching their accounts and never take a day off," so if I received an email while I was out, I was to say I was "out of the office for meetings" and refer them to one of my team members.
So, for the next few years I would keep my lips sealed about any hospitalizations or flares I would endure to my clients. I changed my diet and went gluten-free so I had to take extra steps as to not call attention to it so that they didn't ask why I had a special diet. Meetings were canceled last minute, and dinners that I was supposed to attend were rescheduled for a quick phone call. But, I never told my clients the real reason.
Opening up and being honest about my diagnosis
It wasn't until I met with a new client and she Googled me to check my credibility and saw that I had done volunteer work with the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation. She asked why I was involved and since it was just the two of us (without my teammates) I decided to be honest and told her I had Crohn's.
She looked at me in the eye and said, "Don't take this the wrong way, but I like you a lot more now. I have rheumatoid arthritis and I am impressed by those who have a chronic illness and handle it so gracefully. I really want to work with you."
I will never forget her words, for they not only reassured me that I made the right decision in telling her, but it changed the way in which I communicated with clients going forward. Of course, I told my team about our meeting and her reaction to me sharing my story with her and made it clear that I will share that information with other clients should it be necessary.
Sharing personal stories leads to a meaningful relationship
A few weeks later, I had lunch with a client and she suggested that we share a flatbread appetizer. I politely declined and rather than going with the usual "If I have anything other than a salad I will be asleep by 2pm!"
I told her the truth. I told her that I followed a gluten-free diet because I have Crohn's disease. She in turn told me about her struggles with diverticulitis and how many times she was hospitalized for it, sparing no details.
Suddenly, I became a source of comfort and a safe space to share personal stories. It pushed us beyond the "client/advisor" relationship and created a deeper more meaningful one than we previously had.
It also relieved a lot of my stress because I could be honest with my clients when I had to reschedule a lunch meeting or send my business partner in my place. They also celebrated when I declared in remission and have continued to stay in touch despite me leaving that career two years ago.
Use your voice and share your story
The ironic thing is that I now have a career in sharing my personal stories about my disease and help others who are suffering from IBD to create a healthy and happy life for themselves. Now I advocate for others to use their voice and share their story for the chance that they might be helping someone else.
So, Crohn's Warriors, speak up, don't be afraid of what others may think, because you never know who is also suffering and would welcome an ear to talk to or a shoulder to lean on.
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