Employee confidentiality, secrecy and stigma

by Jason Reid on 05/11/2010

Please note some names have been changed in this true story

The Family Secret

Do you know your family secret? Have you found out about it yet? Most families have at least one. With mine  it was murder involving members of our extended family.

It was a domestic dispute that is unfortunately far too common. Parents split up. One parent can’t handle it, kills the other and leaves a very young child named Rose with a father in prison and a mother who is no longer there.

In this case, Rose was adopted by an uncle and aunt and raised as theirs, not knowing the real truth. The secret is kept, but it’s hard to erase the past. My cousins and I eventually find out the truth, individually. It only happens when we’re older and start asking questions and poking around old photo albums discovered in the back of the closet.

‘Who’s this in the old family photo?”
There would inevitably be a long pause.
“That’s Lisa”
“Who’s Lisa?”
“Jimmy’s sister.”
“Jimmy had a sister! What happened to her?”
Another long pause. “Well I guess I might as well tell you the truth.”  They tell the story.
“Does Rose know?”
“No, and you must never tell her about this”

I never did. We haven’t seen each other in years. We’re such distant relatives she probably won’t read this blog and even if she does she likely won’t recognize the character of Rose as her. As far as I know she still doesn’t know about her real parents. The thing is, everyone else does.

Perhaps it was the right decision to keep something so painful hidden away for so long. There’s no doubt that the people involved decided that  keeping it a secret was in the best interests of the child and the family.

The cost of secrecy

This illustrates the complexity of dealing with confidentiality and secrecy. There are huge costs associated with keeping certain things secret but we rarely talk about them. In this case, one of the costs was the denial that Lisa, the murder victim,  ever existed.

I found out that Lisa was a charming, warm and intelligent woman who was deeply generous and made a positive impact on many people’s lives. These attributes should have been her legacy – freely remembered and shared with the family regularly. Instead, we were not to talk about her. It was as if she had done something terribly wrong or shameful by being a victim.

And that’s the problem with secrecy. We are trained to see something kept secret as something that is potentially shameful.

By keeping something a secret we very often stigmatize it, implying there is some sort of inherent character flaw within the action. It’s a negative spiral though. Which finally brings me to chronic illness.

Over the years I have been told by everyone from doctors and social workers to managers not to ever reveal I have an illness to anyone I work with. The idea being that co-workers and bosses will look at me as flawed  and use this information against me somehow (because all healthy people are perfect of course). Of course, that very secrecy propagates the view that illness IS something to be ashamed of.

Why should illness be secret?

While I agree that people’s privacy and confidentiality should be respected, I also think that those people who choose not to hide their illness should be able to treat it like any aspect of their personal lives. Something they can choose to share if they wish it.  If it’s okay for an employee to let people know she has a small child she needs to get home to at 4pm, it really shouldn’t be any different than if she mentions she has a chronically illness and will need to leave early for lab tests.

As our population ages, I can imagine there will soon come a day when illness has more of an affect on our working lives than small children do. This is a concept we should get used to sooner rather than later. It should be a pillar of employee wellness programs.

Part II

Fostering a sense of openness has significant benefits for businesses and other organizations. I will talk about that in the next post: Business and employees suffer when illness is kept a secret.

Part III

So how do you foster this openness and give your employees the resources they need to help themselves?  Check out part III – Seven ways to improve employee wellness and break the stigma of chronic illness  coming soon

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