Disclose health status?
March 28, 2013 6:28 PM   Subscribe

Should I disclose my illness?

I'm a junior tenure track professor. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease this year. Lots of fatigue, foggy spells, etc.
I also just got the worst teaching evals of my career. This is being escalated to the Dean level.
I attribute some if not most of this to the fatigue. I'm barely making it through some classes when I'm in a spell.

I don't want to disclose my illness because I think they'll hold it against me - not formally but subconsciously. And I don't want to use it as an excuse.
Also my disease is one of those for which there is little treatment and it will probably get worse as time goes on. Since it isn't going away, disclosing might send a message that this is how I always am.

Am I being ridiculous not disclosing?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Little bit, yeah.

You admit that you think your disease is affecting your career -- that's not an excuse, it's a reason. This is the point of the ADA and similar legislation. Tell your Dean (or whomever you answer to) and ask to work with your school's disabilities office to sort something out. The people in your department will probably be greatly relieved that they don't have to fire you for sucking at your job and fall all over themselves to help you.
posted by Etrigan at 6:41 PM on March 28, 2013 [21 favorites]

Escalated to the dean level sounds really serious. I'm sure others in academics can weigh in better, but my first thought is, if you are in danger of getting fired, then you have little to lose by disclosing the illness. If they are unlikely to fire you and first will try to work out some sort of plan for improvement with you, then you could wait until later to see whether disclosure is needed.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:42 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, a debilitating chronic illness is something you want to tell your boss about, if for no other reason than to help get the paperwork together for short-term/long-term disability insurance. You really should have told him/her when you got the diagnosis.

I have a coworker who had his knees replaced. He was out for a week, and worked at home for a solid month, and nowhere near full capacity. This stuff happens to people, and while you may be uncomfortable with your co-workers knowing, it's your boss' job to help you deal with this stuff.

By not telling him/her, you put your career at significant risk, as well as your income - in our state, the company is required to provide long-term disability insurance, which will go a long way in helping you cover some basic bills.

It's not an excuse, and if bringing it up makes you paranoid and unhappy, get a note from your doctor explaining the symptoms and course of treatment. They probably won't ask for it, but it will make you feel better about asking for some help.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:55 PM on March 28, 2013

I wouldn't tell the dean first.

I'd tell whoever does the paperwork in HR first.

Then I'd tell the dean you have a meeting set up with that person in HR to discuss disability options because of your, well, disability.

Deans don't typically do that kind of work and many don't seem cognizant of basic employment matters. You need somebody who is to back up what you may say regarding accommodations. That'd be HR.

And, no, HR isn't always your friend, but deans are far less so at times.
posted by zizzle at 7:05 PM on March 28, 2013 [22 favorites]

Do you have a trusted advisor at another institution? That would be the first person I'd talk to.

The next person to talk to is your chair.

At this point it sounds to me like disclosure may be your only option. Bad teaching evaluations don't typically get escalated to the dean unless there is a serious crisis; you may be in danger of not being renewed.

This is the point of the ADA and similar legislation. Tell your Dean (or whomever you answer to) and ask to work with your school's disabilities office to sort something out.

Academic decisions about promotion and tenure operate along quasi-legal standards at the best of times. I honestly wouldn't trust the ADA to protect you.

My strategy would be to talk to your chair immediately and put a very positive spin on the diagnosis: I just found out this situation (or just realized how seriously it is affecting my work), I am now under treatment, here are my benchmarks for improvement, so as you can see everything will be fine...

If the chair agrees, bring that same spin to the dean.
posted by gerryblog at 7:17 PM on March 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

Do you have a union at your school?
posted by dottiechang at 7:18 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

logically it seems perfectly reasonable to disclose the illness. however, i know academics has some weird politics so advice from a trusted colleague is a definite must - someone who will know how this might reflect on you in your particular environment. And familiarize yourself with your exact rights as someone with a disability if you do disclose - the more information you have about the policies of your institution, the better
posted by Valkyrie21 at 7:23 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

You tell your chair. Period. S/he takes it from there.
posted by spitbull at 7:24 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Agree with gerryblog that academia just isn't as protected as other industries, especially for someone on tenure track. I don't have the experience to advise what you should do specifically regarding your employers, but i also don't think you should automatically 'spin' your illness as something that with poor treatment prospects and something that will get worse. there are no guarantees either way with health, until you are dead; play your optimistic card.

that said, of course you can disclose how badly you have been feeling of late, and how that has badly affected your work. but there's no guarantee that's the state of things forever...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:26 PM on March 28, 2013

Also my disease is one of those for which there is little treatment and it will probably get worse as time goes on.

Well, it might. You also might learn to manage it better. People in my family with autoimmune disorders have done just that. When talking to the dean, emphasize that you've found out now, and that you're dealing with it. You got the diagnosis and the teaching evaluations in the same year. There is no reason for anyone to assume you can't straighten things out.

College teaching is a lot of work, but the good thing is that you have some control over your schedule and you should hopefully be able to marshall your energy for the times when you have to be in front of a class.
posted by BibiRose at 7:27 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Should have previewed. I think gerryblog is right and you should talk to someone you trust, either your chair or someone else who is on your side-- even your thesis adviser.
posted by BibiRose at 7:30 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

My disease is one of those for which there is little treatment and it will probably get worse as time goes on. Since it isn't going away, disclosing might send a message that this is how I always am.

Part of deciding to disclose the diagnosis of a chronic illness to anyone means that one has to come to terms with what life is like with that illness. Understanding what your "new normal" will be takes time. It's a discovery process. You were recently diagnosed, so keep in mind that you don't entirely know what your new normal is yet. That might be part of the trouble you are having when deciding about disclosing to your employer.

I will say that the research shows that disclosing a chronic illness to an employer has been shown to have positive benefits - particularly in that it allows for work adjustments and the provision of social support. These two things are vital in order for you to thrive at your job - and with coming to terms with that "new normal" I mentioned above. Furthermore, disclosing a chronic illness at work is often related to a work issue or incident - meaning that people disclose when they need to. It seems like you need to right now.

I wish you luck. Feel free to MeMail me if you want some citations of articles to read about this. It's in my research area, so I'm happy to assist.
posted by k8lin at 7:37 PM on March 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

You definitely want to tell HR. It might be state-to-state, it might be Federal, idk, but at least in CA, HR is legally required to (a) not tell your boss anything other than "there's a disability that requires accommodation", (b) discuss with your boss what accommodations are appropriate.

Go to HR, and let them deal with it.
posted by colin_l at 7:45 PM on March 28, 2013

Tenured professor here, yes, you have to tell your dean or personnel department. I would tell my dean, personnel on my campus is pretty useless. If you were not having those symptoms, I would say to keep it to yourself.
posted by fifilaru at 7:53 PM on March 28, 2013

If you're represented by a union, your union president or other representatives might also be useful to talk to.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:32 PM on March 28, 2013

And if you have any sort of faculty/staff assistance program on your campus, this is exactly what they are here for. For example, Harvard's is here: http://www.employment.harvard.edu/benefits/worklife/eap.shtml, and University of Florida's is here: http://www.eap.ufl.edu/services.shtml#problems

Google to see if you guys have one. I bet you do. They can probably answer your legal disability questions, talk to you about your concerns in addressing this with your dean, and talk to you about how adjusting to your 'new normal' is going. Usually staffed by psychologists, they are confidential.
posted by anitanita at 9:21 PM on March 28, 2013

University person here.

Your school should have an Office of Equity and Diversity or some other unit that deals with discrimination/Equal Employment Opportunity stuff. It's probably a division of HR. Much of their work may involve things such as compiling the voluntary disclosure forms from job applications for EVERY job at the school.

Through HR and this office, you should have a divisional disability rep. Things you say to them must be kept confidential. It may be someone like your department manager or someone in a parallel department down the hall from your own.

THAT is who you should consult. Do NOT go see your dean first, nor your chair, unless that person happens to be your disability rep. (Highly, highly unlikely.)

If you're not sure which office does this stuff, look on your HR site. You can probably find your rep listed there, if you don't know who that is.

Your campus may also have an ombudsperson or Employee Assistance Program. That's another good confidential resource.

Again, don't be cagey, but DO NOT go to your academic superiors until you have a better idea of a) your rights, b) the resources available to you and c) a plan for dealing with your issues. You may have ideas on your own about potential accommodations, but your disability rep will have specific training about a lot of issues and resources you might not know exist.

Good luck! This can be very difficult (obviously), but you have more going for you than you might think.
posted by Madamina at 9:24 PM on March 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

This AskJAN search will probably be of some help: When to Disclose.

posted by batmonkey at 9:26 PM on March 28, 2013

Okay, it look like I may have misspoken -- at our university, at least, the divisional disability reps are for classified and academic staff only, not faculty; departmental executive committees negotiate with faculty who request accommodation.

However, ESPECIALLY since you're junior faculty, my advice to talk to someone and create a plan first still stands. You should at least check out whatever disability resources are available at your school, as well as sit down with someone like Employee Assistance who can help you map out your next steps. This is emphatically not the kind of thing you want to negotiate on your own.
posted by Madamina at 11:43 PM on March 28, 2013

I am nthing what everyone has said here re. speak to your HR representative/s first, before speaking with anyone in your academic chain of command. In my experience, bosses often have zero clue about disability rights and will say things or take stands that are misguided, wrong, or flat out illegal. I totally get your not wanting to disclose your illness for fear of it impacting how people see you, your possible advancement, etc. But it is having a concrete effect on your performance right now, so. Also, I know where you're coming from, but truly, having a chronic, debilitating illness is not using anything as an excuse; it's a 'what is'. You're ill and you're dealing as best you can.
posted by skye.dancer at 5:06 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

In an American university, going to HR about this when you are already at risk of not being promoted and over the head of your chair may be legally wise, but it's career foolishness. If your chair is at all sympathetic (or smart), s/he will be your advocate here. Act litigious out of the gate and your colleagues will find plenty of legitimate reasons not to tenure you that are plausibly unrelated to your illness or disability. ("Uncollegial" can do plenty of damage. I am a tenured prof and former dept chair, and have been involved in dozens of tenure cases at an R1. "Quasi-legal" is a nice way of putting it.)

Very few universities I know would fire a tenure track aP over a bad semester of teaching evaluations. Most places, teaching is a minor part of tenure qualification. The much more important question is what the illness is doing to your research productivity and collegial networking, which matter much more unless you are at a teaching-centered institution. Your chair will be your best advocate here, presuming you have a good relationship with your colleagues and were previously a strong tenure candidate before the illness. No department wants to lose someone before review, or go through a failed review, because that colleague is sick. Unproductive? Bad teacher? Asshole? Yeah, but then any reason will do as a fig leaf. Sick? Only if your colleagues are antediluvian jerks.

Many commenting here about "HR" and "discrimination" concerns may know employment law, but hey don't understand the unique culture of academia, which for better or worse is a particular and challenging context because the standards for evaluation are unusually and *protectedly* subjective beyond minimum threshold levels of productivity. Academic freedom, dontcha know, cuts both ways. If you are being discriminated against in a tenure review process you might never know it and have a very hard time proving it.

Don't start out litigious. Start out matter of fact and assuming your colleagues and institution will be sympathetic. Litigation over tenure cases almost never succeeds, unless overt prohibited disscrimination is blatant, long-term, and documented.

Be sure to keep a written record of everything anyone tells you, too.
posted by spitbull at 5:12 AM on March 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Also, no one can be accused of discriminating against you if you haven't officially informed the university of your illness before bad things start to happen. The person to whom you report such a thing, by proper channels, is your chair. Period. Then it's up to your university to respond properly and within the law. Right now, they have no obligation or liability, since you have not disclosed the situation.

Telling your chair you are sick initiates whatever legal protection you might enjoy. Not telling her/him is stupid.
posted by spitbull at 5:19 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

PS. You are hardly the first person this has happened to. My guess is your university is used to this and has a policy mechanism in place for dealing with it within current employment law frameworks.

I got terribly sick with a mysterious illness in my first job. I pulled out of it, but it did a lot of harm to my career even though my colleagues were sympathetic, not because I was discriminated against, but because I lost two years of productivity. You must guard your research productivity more zealously than your teaching, trust me. If you are physically unable to teach adequately while producing a tenurable body of published work, , you might as well change careers soon.

Sorry to pepper the thread, but there's some poor advice above. I have been involved in situations like this from all sides many times. You need realistic advice, and again I urge you to seek it from your chair or a trusted senior colleague in your department.
posted by spitbull at 5:32 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

For the record, I work in academa and worked for a professor who had a very similar issue that required a long term disability absence eventually.

She went to HR to find out her benefits and rights. HR never talked to the dean or the chair, but se was educated in such a way as to mke her life far easier when dealing with it. And because I knew about it,when my boss and chair complained about her long absence, I was able to say "disability status" and "It's not like she planned on this, either."

She ended up leaving our university a few YEARS later of her own volition. She went from a teaching institution to a mega-R1. That had nothing to do with her disability and everything to do with n amazing career opportunity. So these things can work out for junior faculty quite well. But you do need to know the vocabulary and your rights and benefits as well.
posted by zizzle at 6:31 AM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Discrimination isn't even the first thing to think about here. You just need an advocate who is trained to work with people in your situation. Yeah, HR and Legal are most often there to cover their own asses, but in this case covering their ass means making sure you've gone through all your options.
posted by Madamina at 6:49 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Any substantive accommodation will require the knowledge and effort of the chair and the dean. If you want teaching relief (or are entitled to it) or other accommodation (including disability leave, but possibly including tenure clock extension, for example), it's your chair's job to arrange for that. You can keep specifics to yourself, but there is no way to do anything that improves your situation that can be accomplished from HR without involvement of the chair and dean.
posted by spitbull at 9:35 AM on March 29, 2013

Let me clarify (and then shut up) that I presume above that you do not have an already difficult relationship with your chair or department. A chair is not the same as a boss, exactly. A chair ought to be an advocate for a faculty member under these circumstances. It's in a department's interest to support its faculty.

Ought to, of course, and will be are two different things.
posted by spitbull at 9:44 AM on March 29, 2013

Very few universities I know would fire a tenure track aP over a bad semester of teaching evaluations. Most places, teaching is a minor part of tenure qualification.

But this as always depends on where you are. I have worked at small liberal arts colleges where you absolutely could be non-retained as the result of a couple of rounds of bad teaching evaluations, especially if they were escalated to the Dean, which is pretty unusual typically.

Here's the thing. They're going to hold the evaluations against you. If it were me, I would totally disclose your illness. It makes it possible for folks to accommodate it. As opposed to them thinking you just are no good at your job.

And if they're not willing to accommodate your illness then maybe this isn't a good fit for you.
posted by leahwrenn at 4:17 PM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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