Skip to main content

Should You Disclose Serious Personal Problems At Work?

Conceal Or Reveal, There Are Consequences

Should You Disclose Serious Personal Problems At Work?


By Mark Swartz
Monster Contributing Writer

Suzanna's Story
I'm rushing to put on my makeup. I can't be late for work again. Not after two months ago, when I was off for over a week. That time it was a cracked rib. At least I could hide the bruises from my co-workers.
Not like this black eye I'm frantically trying to hide. If they see it they won't understand. They won't realize how much my husband loves me. Yes, he has a serious problem. Very serious. But he's finally said he'll go for help. I won't have to worry anymore when he gets angry. He'll learn to control his outbursts, won't he?
Fabrizio's Story
It's gone. All of it. Our savings, even the retirement funds. Damn, I was certain I had the winning hand. And last week, when that "sure thing" finished fifth at the track, just more bad luck. A guy like me can't seem to catch a break.
This is the end of my rope. See this letter from the Canada Revenue Agency? Unless I pay my back taxes, they'll garnishee my wages. They'll send my employer a registered letter, blowing my cover. If only I could go double or nothing on my debts. Too late. As a bank manager, my career will be over.
Their Dilemma
Suzanna is ashamed to admit that she lives in an abusive relationship. Fabrizio is in fear of being outed as a debt-ridden gambler. If their colleagues and mangers knew about their situations, there'd be all that judging, possibly nasty gossip. Their jobs might even be at risk.
But if they don't come forward at work to admit their problems, they chance having their bosses find out anyway. Bosses can only help you when they know what's going on. And red lights flash when your performance suffers for no apparent reason.
So should Suzanna and Fabrizio try to take the initiative? They could do so by disclosing their respective circumstances at work. Or they could continue concealing. Maybe nothing bad will happen if they can just keep a lid on things longer.
My Own Dilemma
There are lots of situations we'd rather keep private. Let's face it, we're human. We make mistakes. Succumb on occasion to our darker urges. Or get affected by forces beyond our control.
Like the time I was working in a good job I couldn't afford to lose. Suddenly life crashed down around me. My father lost his legs and eyesight from diabetes. My brother was (temporarily) in a psychiatric ward. My marriage was dissolving and our kids were very young. Too many stressful happenings at once.
Naturally my boss remarked on my absences. The missing of deadlines. My hand was forced: confess that I was having personal problems, or look like a screw up.
Coming Clean
I chose, reluctantly, to reveal some of my personal problems. Doing so meant I admitted a weakness - I could not devote 100% to my job at that time. My anxiety soared - would my company let me go? The timing would have been disastrous for me.
Yet if I didn't give them a credible excuse, for sure they'd have gotten rid of me. They weren't known for their flexibility. Fortunately my boss was somewhat understanding. He gave me a few months of slightly reduced workload. Then it was back to the grinder. At least I still had my job. It did feel awkward though, with him knowing those vulnerable parts of my private life.
So Should You Reveal?
Whether to hide or confide is a difficult choice. Disclose and someone at work will know more about you than you want them to. This could end up costing you. Promotions might be withheld. You could be given fewer responsibilities. Once an employer is uncertain of your reliability, it can make you more vulnerable.
It's easier to be forthcoming when you and your boss get along well; when you have an established track record; when your employer has policies that encourage openness; and when you're already seeking aid (from your Employee Assistance Program, for example).
It also helps if your problem can be fit into a legally protected category. Fabrizio, for instance, could probably show he has an addiction - in his case, gambling. As such, he may be entitled to protections under provincial or federal employment statutes.
Or Should You Conceal.
But if you suffer, say, from Clinical Depression, or like Suzanna are in a bind that employers don't have to accommodate, you're less protected. Perhaps not a big deal - but only if you can maintain your productivity at an acceptable level.
In the meantime, consider reaching out for help. Otherwise things could worsen beyond your control. Before this happens, you may want to obtain legal advice from an employment lawyer on how to protect yourself. Then approach your boss or, if you have one, your HR department. You could explain your situation and ask for temporary accommodation.
Putting together a support system will lighten your load as well. This group may consist of friends and family, co-workers, and outside professionals (such as a physician, counsellor, financial planner, social worker...whatever's needed). As well, in a crisis you can always call for free a local Distress Center, day or night. You'll reach qualified professionals who can calm you, and direct you to appropriate resources.
An Ounce Of Prevention
Watch out if your performance, attendance or behaviour turns erratic. Questions will be asked. Rumours may start spreading. Soon enough you'll likely be called in to explain. Or not: you might simply be terminated (or demoted) without never knowing why.
That's why you need to think seriously about disclosing. Doing so early on - before you impact your workplace, though after you're aware of your employee rights - gives everyone a chance to make adjustments. Once your bruises can't be hidden, or the CRA seizes part of your wages, it may be too late.

"The content contained in this article is intended to be for informational purposes only.  You should seek the advice of your family doctor or other qualified provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding medical, mental or personal issues.”