Writer and editor
“What did you do at the weekend?” “How was your holiday?” “Are the kids enjoying school?” It’s inevitable that we share our personal lives with our colleagues; after all, we spend so much of our time working with them. It breaks down barriers and forges connections. Yet there are some subjects that are just a little too personal to get into—and your health is top of the list. Here we examine when you have to legally disclose health information to your employer—and when it might be in your best interests to do so.
You are not duty-bound to tell your employer about most health issues, according to Vicki Field, independent HR director at Field HR. If you are off sick for more than seven days, you must give your employer a doctor’s “fit note” but you don’t have to go into detail. “There is no legal obligation to provide information to your employer about your state of health during employment,” she said.
Naturally, there are exceptions. There are certain circumstances when you are obliged to tell your employer about your medical issue. These include:
Covid-19: If you have coronavirus symptoms or have been told that you were in close contact with someone who has tested positive, you must tell your employer.
It breaks health and safety laws, or puts you or others at risk:“For example, if you recently experienced sight loss and you’re a driver,” said Field.
It’s stated in your contract: If there is a clause citing that you need to inform your employer of any changes in health that will affect your ability to do the job.
If you do disclose any personal information, be assured that Barry in accounts won’t find out about your migraines––nor will anyone else in the company, given the data protection rules. “It is strictly against GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] to share any personal data with anyone. So your employer could not share any of your health conditions with colleagues or peers without your express approval,” said Field.
You might be thrown a few awkward questions during a job interview, but a recruiter is highly unlikely to bring up your health, apart from the exceptions above. If they do so, they are breaking the law, according to Field. “If an employer asks about your health during an interview, they would be putting themselves at risk of a disability discrimination claim. The Equality Act 2010 is clear that it is no longer appropriate to ask prospective employees questions about their health before making an offer, including a conditional offer, of employment. If they did so, there would be the potential for a claim for disability discrimination,” she said.
Nor can your employer discriminate against you on grounds of physical or mental health conditions, thanks to the Equality Act 2010. “Employers who treat a person less favourably because of a physical or mental health condition are directly discriminating against them and are acting unlawfully,”according to the Government’s Fit For Work website. You don’t have to be registered disabled to be protected either.
The charity Mind states that 48% of workers have experienced a mental health problem, but over half of them don’t tell anyone. That means one in four workers is suffering in silence. The biggest health taboos are depression and anxiety even though they have the same status as a physical illness under the law.
Weigh it up carefully. This depends on factors such as what the medical issue is, your relationship with your boss and team, your role and the company culture. If it is a mental health issue, is your work affected or even making it worse? If it is a physical issue, can something be done? Perhaps opening up the conversation will improve your health in the long term. It is worth considering the following:
Most employers are on your side, said Field. “Even if the condition does not meet the Equality Act definition of a disability, most employers would want to work with you to support your health and wellbeing.”
This is all about choosing the right time, place and person.
Prepare what you’re going to say: Don’t just blurt out what’s going on. Choose your words wisely, stick to the basics and explain the problem in relation to your work.
Choosing the right person to tell is paramount, says Field. “Find someone who you can be comfortable talking to, and trust. It might be better to talk to HR first. It can be difficult discussing intimate personal matters with your boss,” she said.
Pick a quiet time and a private spot. “If the company offers ‘back-to-work’ interviews after a period of absence, it is an opportunity to discuss your health concerns with your boss. Be as honest as possible about your health and whatever you need from the company to support your condition,” said Field.
However, if you can’t do your job properly due to a long-term or persistent illness, your employer may have grounds for dismissal. This is a last-ditch option: the employer must have looked at ways to support the employee and have given them reasonable time to recover, or they could be looking at a lawsuit.
For help or advice, consider talking to one of the following:
The Government website fitforwork.org is also a rich source of information.
Ultimately, a decent company will want to help and support their employees—healthy staff make for a healthy company—and if they don’t, well, perhaps it’s not the right place to be anyway.
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Writer and editor