Personal Health Conversations: Yes, No, Maybe?

by Janice Giannini

Personal Health Conversations: Yes, No, Maybe?

As pandemic restrictions lift, employees and companies are planning or preparing to return to the office. A common concern arising is how much personal health information an individual is expected to share.

Pre-Covid when you met someone, you might say “Hi- So how are you doing?” to start the conversation. During Covid, that greeting for many became “Hi- so are you vaccinated yet?”

Regardless of the reason- as a conversation starter, simple curiosity, or genuine concern for self and others- asking directly about a person’s health status may impinge on their sense of privacy. That matters to some more than others.

So how do we engage in a conversation when we re-start socializing in or out of the office? What information do we need to know? Where is the line between what we can ask and what might be inappropriate to ask?

I wish I had a script to share with you to make this easy. Sadly, I do not.

I offer the following thoughts to consider before we say anything (Note: I always recommend that we think before we speak). Thinking through “different lenses” helps guide the conversation.

If you consider asking people personal health information such as “Are You Vaccinated?” what is your objective? Why? What are the potential consequences?

Putting yourself in another person’s position, what if you had a health condition where your physician did not recommend vaccination? How would you feel if someone walked up to you and asked about your vaccination status? Would you feel uncomfortable? Would you think that you must defend your decision and share information that is no ones’ business and violates your privacy? If so, do you want to put someone else in that position? Are you asking out of curiosity? Do you need to know? Will the answer substantively change what you do and how you do it? If not, then why ask?

Do you trust your colleagues to make responsible decisions? Do you think they would deliberately put you in danger? If not, then perhaps the conversation takes a different approach. Maybe you share your concerns so those around you can be deliberate in your presence. Allow them to avoid making you uncomfortable.

Some people are very private. If you would be such a person, how would you react to people asking intrusive personal health questions? Will it change what you do or how you do it?

It is reasonable to expect the company to have a return-to-work policy. Expectations are that any guidelines will be straightforward, to the point, address employees’ situations and concerns, and will be widely shared.

It is also reasonable to expect an environment where open dialogue is respectful and encouraged to clarify expectations and consequences for everyone - all employees and the company. Modifications, as adopted, are shared with everyone.

It is reasonable to expect that your personal health information is protected.

There are not easy direct answers here. The environment is a delicate balance among self, others, company, and customers. At some point, we will all settle into our new reality. Work-life will be different. Expectations will be different. The challenge at this point is navigating through these uncertain seas, maintaining our composure, respect for ourselves and others. The transition period may require acknowledging one’s discomfort and anxiety while simultaneously keeping it under control.