Should I Tell My Boss I Have a Disabling Medical Condition?

More than two years ago, I changed careers from nonprofit to public service. I immediately connected with my employer, who has become a mentor to me, and in other circumstances (him not being my boss), I would consider him a friend.

Three months into my tenure, health issues landed me in the hospital. The issue, though at the time serious, initially seemed resolved with treatment. Yet my condition progressively worsened. I was referred to a specialist who diagnosed a chronic illness that will most likely progress to debilitation within two to five years (I am in the second year) and potentially death.

During my brief tenure, my boss has increased my responsibilities, promoted me and proposed changing my position to be more in line with my previous employment. In essence, he is slowly transforming my work into the dream job I discussed during my interview. I suspect he has done so to ensure that I remain, not knowing that I am ill.

I have yet to tell my boss about my diagnosis. Legally, I suspect I am not obligated to, unless I need to take leave from my job. Yet morally, should I not at least advise my boss, particularly given his mentorship of me? I recognize that some of the potential requirements of my new job — frequent travel, increased responsibilities, extended time away from my instrumental supports — may be unsustainable 12 months from now, if not sooner. However, I am currently able to perform. What is my duty here? Name Withheld

Preparing for the changes your medical condition will bring should obviously be your top priority. But you have a professional life that you will be able to continue for some time — let’s hope for a long time — and there’s no reason that you shouldn’t aim to keep it as productive and rewarding as possible. As an employee, you are entitled to keep your diagnosis to yourself until it impairs your performance; and as long as you can fulfill the essential functions of your position, your employer must make reasonable accommodations for your emerging disabilities.

But as you’re well aware, you have another morally relevant relationship with your boss. In addition to your formal relationship with him as an employee, you have a personal relationship with him as a mentee: This is someone you care about and who cares about you. That personal relationship brings burdens as well as benefits. On the one hand, your personal bond with him gives you the reasonable expectation that he won’t exploit what you tell him to your disadvantage, at least to an extent that is consistent with his duties as your boss. On the other hand, it also places a special demand on you to speak with him honestly. You may feel that you owe it to him to give him time to plan for your eventual decline and departure — more time, perhaps, than you would if you were dealing with a faceless institution.

Whether that’s in your interest depends, in part, on how much freedom your boss has to shape the conditions of those who work for him and on whether he wants to do so. And it depends, in part, on whether he truly thinks of you as a protégé rather than simply as someone who’s doing a job extremely well. At issue, then, is whether he’ll continue to go above and beyond his formal and legal obligations, the way he has as your mentor. Will he feel less inclined to do so if he feels you haven’t reciprocated his care, confidence and concern?

In the best case, your cordial relationship will allow you to continue doing work you find fulfilling for as long as your physical condition allows. Within the next year, of course, you foresee having to curtail your duties; you’ll very likely have to take time off. When that happens, an employer can ask for a medical explanation (and can then reveal your condition to others in the organization who may need to know, like people in H.R.). Think carefully about what you want to tell your boss now. But bear in mind that a reckoning probably can’t be postponed for too long.

About a year ago, my husband and our two young children and I were in a car accident for which we were found at zero fault. (A car ran a red light and hit us as we were moving through the intersection.) No one was seriously injured: I received a neck injury that still nags me but doesn’t prevent me from working or doing activities; my husband had some bruising; one child was too young at the time to register what was happening and was uninjured; my other child was psychologically affected but had no physical injuries. We sought therapy for him, and he has since fully recovered. Our car was completely wrecked, and we received an insurance payout to replace it. At the time, several friends urged us to see a lawyer to make sure we received fair financial compensation for the accident.

We live in British Columbia, where every car owner must pay into a public insurance system. We knew that we would receive some insurance money if we did not have a lawyer, but we were told that with one, our payout would be bigger. I was hesitant, but I was ultimately convinced because we didn’t know the extent of my neck injury or my child’s psychological trauma. It is about a year later now, and my husband has received $20,000 for his claim; I have received $20,000 and my son $25,000 (this is before lawyer fees). Our other son did not receive any money because he was uninjured.

I feel appalled about the amount of money that we are taking from the public system, when it’s clear that we will have no long-term effects. Many of my friends, including my husband, have the view that this is fair compensation, given that this was a very traumatic episode for which we should receive pain-and-suffering compensation. I can’t shake the feeling that we are taking advantage of the situation. For more context, my husband and I both have good jobs, and we are not in desperate need of money. Name Withheld

This is, if you will excuse my saying so, a very Canadian problem. In your province, British Columbia, you have a public system of auto insurance in addition to a public system of health care that means you don’t have to worry about medical expenses. Excessively generous insurance systems? This is a burden most U.S. citizens have been spared.

The question of how much compensation for pain and suffering is appropriate has no straightforward answer. Moral theory doesn’t fix a monetary value on these things. The right amount is largely a matter of what’s customary in comparable cases. Your concern that you’ve been given too much is admirable, and yet the amounts you mentioned aren’t wildly higher than the British Columbian average. If the citizens of your province, or their elected representatives, seek to cap such payouts, they can do so. And in fact they have: Lower limits on pain-and-suffering claims for minor injuries took effect last April. In the meantime, you can take consolation in the thought that these sums, though large to you, are tiny compared with the scale of the public insurance system. And you’re free to find a well-run charity and to direct some of the damages you’ve been paid to those whose needs are beyond question.

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