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Recent research revealed an interesting point about women with MS (multiple sclerosis) in the US workplace. The national survey found that women with MS had at least once tried to hide their MS symptoms at work. MS is a progressive illness that affects the brain and spinal cord (that comprise the central nervous system).
The survey’s results were put into the Women and MS: The Working Mother Report. The research was done to find out more about the challenges faced by women with multiple sclerosis who have careers and are caring for their families. There were 1,248 working women surveyed; the median age was 40, and they all had an MS diagnosis. The Working Mother Research Institute conducted the research, and the study is sponsored by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
One of the conclusions was that 60 percent of the surveyed women indicated they tried to hide their MS symptoms during their workday. At first, when I read that result, I thought, well they’re perhaps not wanting to worry other people about their disease or cause any disruption in an office routine. Then I read in the report that 59 percent of surveyed females said they were comfortable talking about their MS with supervisors and 61 percent noted they felt at ease discussing the same subject with their coworkers.
So, then, that leads to this conclusion: Women are comfortable talking about their MS at work but not so at ease showing the symptoms of the disease. Common symptoms experienced by people with multiple sclerosis are feeling tired, numbness, issues with mobility, pain, vision issues, tingling, and memory lapses. Of the surveyed women, eight out of ten of them said they currently or had recently (within the last three months) shown symptoms of MS.
Again, though, I wondered why women hide MS. Then it hit me. It is part of a category of “invisible” illnesses. Depression is another disease that has invisible aspects or reveals itself at least partially in ways we do not see visually. Look at the symptoms listed above. Aha, yes, memory lapses are not something we reach out and touch; that is a hidden symptom. Fatigue and pain are invisible too. Of course, the severity of the symptoms differs from woman to woman just as they do to all people affected by the illness.
Again, you ask, but why hide their symptoms, such as cognitive issues? Perhaps because not everyone may understand that a symptom you cannot see or touch does, yes, actually exist. For example, multiple sclerosis sufferers may fear their co-workers think they are making it up or don’t really have anything wrong with them. Therefore, the working women with MS hide their symptoms to avoid being doubted for having their diagnosed disease.
As well, it is one thing to describe an illness generally to someone such as a co-worker or boss but quite another thing to explain you are then, right then in that moment, experiencing pain or one of the other symptoms. The former me, several years ago, would have hidden a cold for fear of making a scene in the office or drawing attention from others toward me. I’m not saying that is what all of these MS women are doing but maybe some of them are self-conscious too.
Also, they may fear losing their jobs if it looks like they have symptoms that may prevent them from doing their work effectively. If a woman, for example, says she feels numbness then the supervisor may think, well she may not be able to type much in the near future then and so they will start looking for a replacement employee.
What are your thoughts on this survey and its finding that many women hide their MS symptoms at work?
You can download the full report here: Women and MS: The Working Mother Report