Forced Civility: Maintaining Privacy in the Workplace

When you think of privacy in the workplace, do you consider it as the two-edged blade it truly is?   I wonder if we do; I know I didn’t.  That’s because on-the-job civility emboldens a certain amount of invasion of privacy and working to maintain a balance that not only appreciates the concerns of coworkers while at the same time, holding some things back from prying, investigative eyes, is not as easy as it seems.  Let me relate what happened to me…

Late last year after having cataract surgery in the left eye, I was diagnosed with glaucoma and advised to have emergency surgery again in that eye.  Afterwards, I began a course of surgeries in the right eye to combat the ailment and even me out, so to speak.  At the same time, I was back and forth with the surgeon making corrections on that pesky left eye; trying to find that ocular sweet spot that maintains a steady and healthy intraocular pressure.

It’s the maintenance of pressure levels that prevents damage to the optic nerve and averts the onset of glaucoma.  Healthy eye pressure is between 12-22 millimeters of mercury (mm HG) and for reference, when I went into emergency surgery for the left eye, my pressure had skyrocketed to 58 mm HG and my everyday readings varied between 21-35 mm HG.   There was a real danger that I could lose my sight.  So thus, began my years’ worth of doctor’s visits and procedures.

Anyone who’s had glaucoma trabulectomy incisional surgeries will understand what I mean when I say, it’s an up and down road to recovery.  Some days you see very well and some days, you can hardly discern anything, creating what I began to think of as the blindness of anxiety.  There are also restrictions after surgery.  Among them, you can’t lift heavy objects for at least 4-6 weeks or bend over.  Your head can’t be lower than your knees, in efforts to thwart a rise in your eye pressure.  There’s no time off from work mandated.  In fact, I returned to the job either the day after or in one case-a critical time, the same day after surgery, using my accumulated vacation and sick time when I felt the need to.

During this time, I was forthcoming with my supervisors as well as coworkers about my condition, not wanting to risk not keeping management informed.  I also considered myself an ambassador, spreading the word about the dangers of glaucoma.  Truth be told, I hoped I filled a necessary niche as those I spoke to didn’t know about the disease or even how it was contracted.  Little did I know that I was creating my own problem.

This October, I would have to have an additional surgery on my right eye to make some adjustments.  As I said earlier, the recovery period is long and full of such treatments.  Having gone through it, I thought about maybe going out on short-term disability for a six-week period, during the immediate post-recovery time.  And I told my manager that I was thinking about doing so.  I further approached my HR Department to get the necessary paperwork, just in case.  This is when I noticed something.

It seemed that the powers were running with the assumption that I was gone.  Directors and coworkers alike started asking me when was I going out.  And even when I told my manager again that I was only considering it, he assured me that doctors will say what I need them to, in his mind alleviating any fears I might have had that my doctor would put the kabbash on my STD request.  As my assumed date to leave loomed, I got an eye infection that forced a surgery cancellation.  This went unnoticed by all and on October 31, my department sent a company-wide email stating that I was to be replaced and wishing me good luck on my recovery.  Now here’s the issue.

When I told management, I was not going out, they were immediately concerned that I notify them when I have my upcoming surgery.  I have a problem with that, especially since when I kept them informed they got it all wrong.  There’s also the feeling I’m getting; that there was some glee in the whole thing.  I have a checkered past with the company and even today after almost 18 years, I get the impression that they still don’t want me around.  I think they need me but they don’t want me.  (Read some of my past workplace articles for a gist of what I’m talking about.)

So, how do I protect my privacy moving forward?  I wonder if it’s too late for me as I’m already seeing issues stemming from my past openness.  Colleagues have read the email, see that I’m not going out and are coming to me with questions.  “When are you leaving?”  “Are you still going on disability?”  Even the innocuous and thoughtful, “How do you feel?” strikes me as intrusive right about now as I struggle with a short and concise yet polite reply.  It’s occurred to me that maintaining privacy is a two-sided issue.

It’s like coming to a fork in the road, where traveling down one side, the up-front side where you’re an open book to coworkers presents one type of issue and down the adjacent, where you’re a bit more tight-lipped, presents another, and neither is truly well-suited for you.  It’s the tight-lipped side, that one seeking a modicum of confidentiality, where you’ll be misjudged as curt or impolite.  And that’s the side I’m scared I’ll fall into.   I’m just wondering…


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