How to Have "the Talk" About an Employee's Health Condition in the Workplace

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Alison Daily
Talking to an employee about his or her health condition in the workplace can be tricky. While it can be a difficult task, it’s one of the most important.

Talking to an employee about his or her health condition in the workplace can be tricky. I often hear from managers that this is one of the hardest parts of their job.

While it can be a difficult task, I would argue that it’s one of the most important. As an HR manager or senior manager, you can’t always depend on an employee to disclose that a health condition may be affecting his or her job performance. As we’ve mentioned previously, among other reasons, an employee may feel labeled by his or her condition and not feel comfortable reaching out for help.

However, the ramifications of not connecting with an employee to address the impact of his or her medical condition on their job performance can be great. Not only may an employer be dealing with an employee’s subpar performance or reduced productivity, not reaching out can result in a missed opportunity to get an employee the accommodations he or she needs to mitigate the impact of their condition on their performance.

Starting the Conversation

As simple as it sounds, being open and accepting about an employee’s health condition can go a long way toward a healthier, more productive workplace. You can use a few situations as prompts to start the conversation.

Prompt 1: An Employee’s Work Isn’t What it Used to Be

An employee who is working through an illness, injury or behavioral health condition could exhibit symptoms of presenteeism on the job. This could include missing deadlines, taking longer to carry tasks to completion or not working productively.

Prompt 2: An Employee Seems “Off”

A manager knows the personalities and work habits of his or her employees. Most managers will know their employees well enough to notice if a particular employee doesn’t seem like himself or herself – especially if a health condition continues over a prolonged period.

What’s in Bounds for Your Conversation

While you can’t directly ask if a health condition is to blame for an employee’s sluggishness or poor job performance, you can focus on behaviors the employee is exhibiting in the workforce, rather than overarching theories.

For example, instead of saying, “You look anxious” or “You look tired,” managers should try “I see you’ve missed a few days of work lately. Is everything OK?” Or, “I see it’s taking a lot of time to get these reports finished. Is there anything you need to help make sure we can meet our deadline?” You could even ask a simple, “Is there anything that’s getting in the way of you doing your job?”

While an employee doesn’t need to disclose his or her health condition, this approach can help open the door to identifying ways the employee could benefit from assistance. The earlier you identify an employee who could benefit from an accommodation to improve his or her overall health, the earlier you can help an employee treat his or her condition and potentially avoid a disability leave.