At some point, we all get sick and have to miss a day or two of work. But what if you have a serious medical issue that requires frequent doctors’ appointments — and your absences begin to hurt your work and professional relationships?

You’ll need to discuss your situation with your manager and human resources to ensure your work is covered. But what about colleagues on the periphery, the people you work with, but not closely enough to share sensitive personal information with? Do you tell them and risk revealing too much? Or, say nothing and let them jump to their own conclusions? Is there any way to stem resentment that may result from your colleagues picking up the slack?

Personal experience

Noga Leviner, chief executive of San Francisco’s Picnichealth.com, which offers a subscription-based service that stores and tracks medical records online, knows firsthand what it's like to deal with a medical issue while working. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of 26 and ended up leaving the micro-financing company she had founded.

“Every patient has to make his or her own decision about how comfortable they are sharing their story with co-workers,” Leviner said in an email. “In general, my experience and observation has been that owning your situation — confidently sharing as much as you’re comfortable with — will take a lot of the pressure off of everyone.”

Assume people have noticed

It would be naïve to think that your absences won’t be noticed by your colleagues. “If you act like you're dealing with an embarrassing secret and don't acknowledge that something is going on, they're likely to reflect that back to you and see your absence from a meeting as an irritation to speculate about behind your back, but not discuss directly,” Leviner said.

But, opening up about a personal issue is often easier said than done. “If you can be as honest as you’re comfortable being, you will put your co-workers at ease and increase the chances that they feel empathy and pick up the slack for you.”

Tell it like it is

Even though it has been years since she was diagnosed, Leviner still deals with having to share information with people she has often just met. “Because I have a restricted diet that requires asking restaurant servers a lot of questions, I'm in the position where I have to explain myself whenever I'm out eating with someone new, especially from work,” she said.  “This can easily put the disclosure in the ‘TMI’ [too much information] category since it’s not unusual to meet a new acquaintance or professional contact over food.” Leviner has found that when people don't know about Crohn's disease, most will ask what's involved. “I pretty much just bulldoze over their discomfort."

Positive reaction

If a colleague is having health issues, people rarely respond negatively, said Dr Lorraine Tilbury, founder of personal and professional development firm HorsePower International, based in France’s Loire Valley. “I've always found that communicating that there is a health/family emergency issue that's affecting your availability at work is nearly always received with empathy and understanding,” she said in an email. “After all, life events of that type will happen eventually to everyone.” 

No need to overshare

Don’t feel that you must provide more details than necessary, Tilbury said. “It can be sufficient to say, ‘I have a health issue that requires some close medical surveillance; thus there will be times when I'll be less available than I was in the past. My appointments are made sufficiently in advance for me to alert you to when I will be less/not available’."

When you do decide to share what's going on, have a back-up plan in place if possible. That way, you can also add: “When I'm not available and there's an urgent matter that needs my attention, you can rely on [this person] while I'm away,” suggested Tilbury.

Might take it personally

The biggest mistake you can make is to not communicate. “If no explanation is given on your part, the natural assumption of most individuals, including your colleagues, will be that you are experiencing difficulties with them in some way that you are not able, or do not want, to express, with the risk of a further increase in discomfort at work,” Tilbury said. If you explain your situation, even briefly, you’ll quickly diffuse any tense interactions with your colleagues.

Get specific

It is human nature to want to help. So, while your boss shouldn’t reveal any private details about you, he or she is likely to get questions from your colleagues. They may want to know whether your situation is likely to improve (since they are picking up the slack), or if there is any way they can help, said Elaine Varelas, managing partner at Boston-based career management firm Keystone Partners. Depending on the severity of your health issue, and what you are comfortable with, there may be some ideas you can provide to your manager. “Suggestions [ranging] from being flexible, to emailing more than leaving phone messages, to more significant needs like donating blood, will all be welcome,” Varelas said.

Counteract any resentment early

It doesn’t always happen – but a situation like this can bring out unspoken resentment from colleagues. When you feel ready, plan a one-to-one conversation with anyone who picked up the slack while you were absent – or invite them to lunch, suggested Tilbury. “Say, ‘I realise that it must have been tough for you to handle all that while I was away. How did you manage?’ and then actively listen to their feedback, showing appreciation for all that they did,” she suggested. “Then say, ‘Is there anything I can do to [return the favour/provide some support to you in return/show my appreciation?]’.”

Hopefully, you have a boss who is on your side. “A supportive boss who is also able to empathise with the colleagues who had to deal with your absence – without bad-mouthing you – and who recognises their extra effort, be it only through verbal appreciation, will make a world of difference in re-integrating you smoothly back into the team,” said Tilbury. 

Show your appreciation

When you finally do get back into the swing of things, find a way to let your colleagues know you appreciated their extra effort. “Hold a small celebration during lunch hour or as an ‘after-work’ in the early evening, on- or off-site,” Tilbury suggested. “Recovering from something serious is certainly worth celebrating.” If that is too much for you to handle, individual, hand-written, thank-you notes addressed to those who bore the biggest load of your work would be a nice touch. Or take a moment and pull them aside. “Look them in the eye, and sincerely say how much you appreciate all that they did to keep things going so that you could focus on getting your health back,” Tilbury said.

By doing this, you are bringing yourself back into the fold. “A personal thanks is great, a written note welcome, and a written note to the manager commenting on the value of an exceptional colleague cements relationships,” Varelas said.

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