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My colleague has M.E., how will this affect me?

When someone you work with has M.E., you need to understand the illness and the impact it can have on them.

The fluctuating nature of M.E. can make it difficult for someone with the illness to maintain a consistent level of working. A task that is easily manageable one day may prove impossible the next.

Even when a person’s condition appears to have stabilised, it is common for people with M.E. to experience relapses or setbacks, when their health deteriorates again for a period of time. This may happen if they have been pushing themselves too hard.

This can be difficult and frustrating for them and their colleagues. Your understanding and patience will be invaluable to them.

How can I support my colleague?

People with M.E. often feel under pressure to continue working at the same level as they used to when they first become ill or when their symptoms worsen.

Unfortunately trying to ‘push on’ through this illness can be counterproductive, potentially causing longer sickness absences and slowing recovery.

The best way you can support your colleague is to learn about the illness and understand that it can fluctuate, and that they may not always be able to do the same amount of work that they used to. Your colleague may not look it but often they could be too ill to write a simple email or make a phone call.

Unfortunately there are too many examples of people who have lost their jobs because employers and colleagues are ill-informed or unsupportive. Disabled people can also be a target for bullying.

Thankfully, with the right support and understanding from their manager and colleagues, some people with M.E. do remain as valuable members of their team.

If your colleague is away from the office, particularly for a long time, it can help if you stay in touch so that they know you are thinking of them. M.E. can leave a person feeling isolated and alone, and that little bit of contact can make a lot of difference.

When it’s time for them to come back to work, your employer may, in accordance with the law, have made reasonable adjustments to enable them to return so they might work different hours or take rest breaks during the day.

If a member of your team is on reduced hours or sick leave with M.E. you may find that your workload has increased.

It’s only natural to feel frustrated if you have to work longer hours or take on more tasks, particularly if your colleague is away from work for an extended period.

Remember it’s not your colleague’s fault that they are ill – they would much rather be well enough to work.

Regular scheduled discussions between you and your manager about your priorities, goals, job performance and workload can help prevent you becoming overwhelmed.

What if my colleague wants to keep their M.E. secret?

It may be that your colleague has confided in you about their M.E. but they do not want other people at work to know about their illness – at all or in detail.

People have the right to insist that an illness remains confidential if they wish, so please ask about and respect their wishes. Information about a person’s M.E. should not be shared with any other person, inside or outside the organisation, without the prior, expressed consent of the person with M.E.

The Data Protection Act says employers must ensure confidential and appropriate handling of “sensitive personal data,” which includes information about a person’s health.