Catherine Brooks is a partner at law firm Moores, a co-founder of an online beauty business, and lives with MS. Catherine is accredited by the Law Institute of Victoria as a workplace relations specialist.
To tell or not to tell? A challenge worth exploring
By Catherine Brooks
I’ve been living with Multiple Sclerosis for 9 years, but it wasn’t until the 9th March 2015 that I officially came out here to the world as living with MS.
Coming out was scary and nerve-wracking. It was also incredibly empowering and I’m glad I did it. But before I made this big public admission, I seriously weighed up the pros and cons (for many years) so I thought I’d share my thinking with you, and hopefully this will inform your own decision-making when the time is right for you.
The big con:
- Discrimination. Unfortunately there’s still a lot of discrimination in our society when it comes to disability. Many of us hold legitimate fears about ‘coming out’ because of the impact it will have on our work and friendships. The reason for my delay in ‘coming out’ was because I feared being discriminated against. Pretty ironic really, given that I’m an accredited specialist in workplace relations law. I just never wanted the situation to arise where someone thought, 'I’m not going to give Catherine that file/new matter/new client because of her disability', or 'we'd better not put too much pressure on Catherine as it might exacerbate her MS'. I was worried I’d miss out on opportunities. I feared it would affect my career advancement. That’s why I only came out publicly after I was made a partner of a law firm. I’m in a privileged position being at Moores. I’m in a workplace that encourages work / life balance, that openly discusses mental illness and that has a dedicated human resource team that is passionate about stamping out inequality in our firm. I appreciate that not everyone is in this position, so I caution you – if you’re concerned about your role, the impact that the disclosure will have on your livelihood, tread carefully. Very carefully. Whilst it is against the law to discriminate against an employee based on a disability or illness, it is still unfortunately very common-place. Seek guidance from a mentor, legal / HR advisor, or a friendly advisor at the Australian Human Rights Commission to gain further advice.
- Support. Your workplace is obligated to take into account your illness and look at ways in which you can be accommodated so that you can still work (in a reduced or modified capacity if necessary). For further information on this topic stay tuned.
- Say goodbye to loneliness! For those of you that have been braver than I and have ‘come out’ much earlier, you’ll know that as soon as you tell people you’re struggling, they’ll share with you their struggles. When you ‘come out’ people relate to you, show you empathy, give you compassion and strength and sometimes a shoulder to cry on. Everyone is battling with something. When I came out I was overwhelmed by the support shown by my colleagues and fellow partners. I was also congratulated by clients! Another lawyer actually ‘came out’ to me admitting that she too has MS and a personal assistant also confided in me, telling me that she suffers clinical anxiety. It was so great not to feel alone and to be a sounding board for others suffering.
- Debunk the myths. Yes, sometimes people ask really stupid questions or make ignorant statements about conditions they know nothing about. Like our neighbor who told me I shouldn’t catch public transport anymore as I might give her children my illness. But these situations create opportunities. Opportunities for us to debunk the myths around MS. By opening up the communication channel and being honest about my MS I can raise awareness about the reality of my condition. By making yourself vulnerable, you can gain so much.
Some further considerations
Before taking the leap, you may also want to consider the following questions:
- What are you trying to achieve by making the disclosure?
- Are you required to disclose your illness in the workplace? Stay tuned for a separate article on this topic.
- If you have made a disclosure, are you requesting your employer to make reasonable accommodations in the workplace for you? If so, have you mapped this out so that you have a really clear business case about what accommodations are required, whether this will impact on your productivity and ways to minimise disruption for the workplace?
- Have you collated all the relevant information pertaining to your illness? I.e.do you have up to date medical information to provide to your workplace when requesting adjustments be made?
- Are you prepared to answer questions in the workplace about your illness, such as:
- “I had a relative that had MS, are you going to be in a wheelchair soon? Will you die earlier because of your MS?” Potential response: MS affects everyone differently. My common symptoms are [insert]. There is no suggestion that my life expectancy will be effected so I’m just taking each day as it comes.
- “I didn’t know anything was wrong, did you hide it? How does it affect you?” Potential response: Not everyone has a disability that is visible. Many chronic illnesses are invisible to the naked eye. This doesn’t mean that they’re any less debilitating. My common symptoms are [insert].
- “Oh my goodness, I just wouldn’t want to keep living if I was diagnosed with a chronic condition”. Potential response: Your life is not over when you are diagnosed with a chronic condition. Your life is also not over with a diagnosis of MS.
- “I feel so helpless – I wish I could do something for you.” Potential response: You are helping me, just by being my friend and listening to me. You can also help me by debunking the myths and stigma associated with having MS. My life is not over and we all go through tough times. Thanks for supporting me.
In my next article, I look forward to delving into MS and the workplace even further. Stay tuned.