When I was 18, I had a weekend job in my local supermarket. It was convenient and a good way for me to earn a few extra pounds whilst I was studying. The staff were friendly and I got to know some of the local customers on a first name basis.
I’d been diagnosed with psoriasis for little over a year. I had patches on my knees and elbows, which although visible whilst I was wearing my uniform, didn’t cause me too much pain or embarrassment. That was until one day in the supermarket.
I’d been seconded to the Deli counter for a month, dishing up savoury treats, cheeses and hams for our customers. I was used to spending my time on the checkout, so working in a different department was a little nerve-wracking for an introverted and shy 18 year old.
One morning, on the counter, I was serving regular faces and making small talk with my colleagues. I came to serve my next customer. I took his order, but he stopped mid-sentence and pointed at my elbows.
“What’s that?” he asked
“Psoriasis,” I replied. Slowly.
“Right.” He continued “I would like to get served by the other lady please.”
I was mortified. My psoriasis hadn’t ever caused a reaction like that before. I quickly made my excuses as I handed the customer over to my colleague and rushed out the back, stifling tears.
A manager approached me and asked what was wrong. I said ‘nothing, I just prefer the checkouts.’ But the tears were already flowing. I was too embarrassed to mention the customer’s comments and blamed it on not feeling like I fitted in at the Deli counter.
Fast forward ten years and I had been working in an office-based role for over a year, dealing with my psoriasis secretly, under long sleeves and opaque tights. I’d been ‘getting away with it’ just fine, until one incredibly cold winter, when my skin flared up so badly, I could barely move my legs for fear of cracking my skin.
I had to force my way into work, bloody knees and all, to call a meeting with my manager, requesting if I could work from home. It was granted, but my manager asked why I hadn’t ever told her before and that she had no idea how much I was suffering. She was genuinely concerned and wanted to help. I was so upset, in pain and embarrassed. I sat there tears running down my cheeks as I knew my pride had got in the way of telling the truth. Again.
When I think back to these moments, I berate myself for not being upfront about my psoriasis in the first place. The 28-year old Josie should have learned from the much younger version of herself. I should have been honest about my psoriasis with my employer and how it affected me in the workplace from the very beginning.
But I guess that’s why they say hindsight is a wonderful thing, right?
So, to prevent yourself from feeling as I did, here’s why you should put on your big girl pants and tell your workplace about your psoriasis.
Choose the right person
Start by identifying who you are going to tell first.
You might feel uncomfortable telling a stranger in HR about your psoriasis. That’s fine. If you feel more comfortable telling your line manger or department manager instead, then go for it. They can provide support. Most are supportive and will want to find out what you need in order to do your job effectively. You might find, as I have done since, that a particularly kind manager will do some research into psoriasis so they can find out more about the skin disease and how it might affect you.
If you can, you should also tell a close friend at work. This should be someone you can confide in if you are struggling at work during a flare, someone who can wipe the flakes from your shoulder, not batting an eyelid whilst they tell you about their latest Tinder date disaster.
I recommend going for lunch and bringing it up. Be prepared for questions and don’t be afraid to gently explain how they might be able to help you.
Find the right medium
You might feel more comfortable talking about your psoriasis over an email rather than in person. This is how I told my manager in my current place of work. I was able to write (and rewrite and rewrite again) an email, explaining my condition, how I was having a bad flare up and how it affected my performance.
Even if you choose to speak to your manager or colleague face to face, follow up your conversation with an email. Thank them for listening to you and invite them to ask any questions, if they should think of any.
Choose your moment
Scheduling a meeting an hour before the year-end sales meeting probably isn’t a good idea. Choose a time in your colleague’s diary when he or she isn’t snowed under with work. A thirty-minute conversation on a Friday afternoon is all you need.
Stick to the facts
Psoriasis stories can be funny and it can be easy to slip into an anecdote about raw knees and a crude aunt during lasagne at Grandma’s.
However, my advice is to be objective. Keep to the facts and don’t waffle on. Yes, I know there is a lot to talk about, but further details of your experiences with psoriasis can be saved for future conversations.
Initial conversations should be focussed on:
- What psoriasis is
- What triggers it for you
- How you are treating your skin
- How it might impact your work
- How work can support you
Always ask the person you’re talking to if they have any questions.
However you tell your friends at work, your manager, HR or anyone else for that matter – always remember to include the ‘one thing’.
The ‘one thing’ is the point of you telling someone. Your objective. What do you want the outcome of your conversation to be?
Your ‘one thing’ might be different depending on whom you’re talking to. For example:
HR/The Manager: You might want a manager to identify why you need to take time off work to visit the hospital, or why you might need to work from home from time to time.
The Close Colleague: You might want a close colleague to recognise why you are feeling particularly down (or are still wearing your Fair Isle jumper in August). You will want them to be able to detect when the need to transform into a cheerleader for you. (Go Team Psoriasis!)
The Not-so Close Colleague: This is a tricky one. These are people you work with, but aren’t close enough to open up about your psoriasis with.
Rumours are rife in any workplace. As you know, visible psoriasis patches can cause all kinds of whispered conversations. That’s why it’s best to nip it in the bud and a conversation with a not-so close colleague can help you do this.
If you’re at the water cooler, in the kitchen, the toilets or out on a work do, consider bringing it up in a laid back fashion – something like ‘How’s your day going… mine’s going well. I have a doctor’s appointment about my psoriasis tonight, so need to leave on time.’ That kind of comment can let your colleague know about your psoriasis without you having to go into song and verse about it.
Whoever you speak to, you’re bound to get asked questions, so have bank of answers prepared. For example:
What’s that on your arm? It’s psoriasis. It’s an autoimmune disease that manifests itself on my skin. It’s non-contagious. Yes, it hurts!
Ohh! That looks sore: It is. It’s psoriasis; a non-contagious skin disease caused by my autoimmune system. I’m having a bad flare at the moment. Be kind and buy me chocolate.
Have you tried magic planet juice squeezed from the moon? My brother-in-law’s best friend’s mum swears by it (or something like this… you know the questions I mean): Oh, that sounds interesting. I’m glad she has found some relief. I’ll be sure to look into that…. (Internal eye roll). Always be polite.
How to Tell Everyone You Have Psoriasis Without Sending an All Staff Email Called ‘I Have Psoriasis’
If you want to tell people about your psoriasis, without being too preachy or awkward, then why not take part in a charity event, like a local 10k, to raise money for a psoriasis charity? You can explain you’re fundraising for a charity close to your heart, explaining your experiences with psoriasis and inviting colleagues to donate. It’s a gentle way to tell people about your skin and paves the way for people to ask further questions if they want to, or even tell you that they have psoriasis too.
Of course, you are under no obligation to tell work about your psoriasis. But don’t make the mistakes I did. Managers are colleagues will want to support you. You might find (as I often do) that they open up to you about their own health too.
Telling work about your psoriasis means you can stop hiding. You can be your true self. Remember, you don’t need to go into lots of detail. You can share as much or as little as you want.
Ultimately, you need to make the decision that is best for you.
But if you do go for it, then congratulate yourself. It’s never easy coming out about your skin, especially if you’re a private person like me. But sometimes, these awkward conversations need to be had. It’s not about the reasons you shouldn’t have that tricky conversation. It’s always about the reasons you should.
So when are you speaking up about your psoriasis?