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Should I tell?
Jul 27, 1998

I know this is a common question, but no one seems to have the same situation as me, so I hope you'll bear with me and try to answer it again.

I'm an attorney and work in a fairly pressured large law firm environment. I was diagnosed with HIV last fall and have done extremely well with medication. While I have missed hours here and there because of doctors appointments, I have not missed a single day of work.

Two months ago, my father became ill and passed away. The combination of HIV and losing a parent in 6 months has really affected every facet of my life. I'm fatigued, depressed, and much more bothered by side-effects from HIV meds than I was before.

I want to work and I want to play by the same rules as everyone else. But I realize my work has been greatly affected by my situation over the past few months. The quality, fortunately, seems to be as high as ever. But the quantity -- my total output and productivity -- has taken a nose-dive.

I'd like to think that I'm going to pull myself together and plug ahead. The thought of taking a month off under Family Medical Leave to get my head together is pretty appealing too.

My various supervisors, who all like me, must be wondering what in the world is going on with me. My billable hours, which they get a report on, for last month were awful.

It seems like it would all be easier if I just told them about my HIV status, so they understood that I'm not a slacker and that things will get better. On the other hand, while this is a liberal environment, I can't guarantee what their reaction will be. And even if their reaction is fine, I'd hate to think they'd judge me by an easier standard than my peers in the future.

Yes, I'm seeing a psychiatrist, but he really can't advise me about what to do about telling my employer, and I'm anxious to hear what you might have to say.

Thank you so much for answering my question.

Response from Ms. Breuer

Your question is really important. When you think about telling your employer, please focus on this question: what outcome do you want? What is the best way to achieve it? If the outcome you want is a break to absorb all that has happened to you in six months--a completely reasonable need--then you can achieve that without revealing your diagnosis. If you disclose and immediately ask for FMLA leave, you are likely to be perceived as sicker than you are.

It is entirely reasonable to ask for FMLA leave because someone in your family has just been diagnosed with a serious illness and you need to focus on that person's needs right now. You could also explain that you are on medication for a manageable condition that does not interfere with your work, but you need some time to calibrate the dosage, and your physician recommends taking a short leave to accomplish that.

I am not a psychologist, but my experience in the field of HIV suggests that you are deeply involved in grieving--your own loss of HIV negativity and the loss of your father--and that can interfere a great deal with your productivity. This is not something that you can just "tough out." Is there a human resources person in the firm who is clear about her/his duty to keep medical information confidential? (That duty is strict and clear, and before talking with the person about your need for a break, I suggest that your preamble to the conversation be a reminder of that duty and asking for reaffirmation from the HR professional of that duty.) Could you talk with that person about your need to take a break so that your productivity does not continue to suffer? The HR person is, after all, the one who will do the FMLA paperwork. There is no need for the specific reason for the leave to go beyond that person.

Please let me know if the HR contact is not an option. It may be that if someone else in the firm handles FMLA leave, we may need to approach this differently. Don't hesitate to write back.

You are so wise to recognize what's happening before it affects your performance appraisal. I suggest you couch the entire conversation with HR in terms of maintaining your productivity even though you have suffered some serious losses lately. Please give your spirit time to heal. The relationship of physical and mental health in HIV infection are so intertwined. This is a good time to take care of yourself.

Nancy Breuer



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