MANAGING WORK AND CHRONIC ILLNESS
Unfortunately, for most people with chronic illness, your life revolves around your condition, all while juggling the same responsibilities you had before becoming sick. If you work or have a career, just because you’re ill doesn’t mean it’s going to get more manageable for you necessarily. It’ll likely get more challenging as you struggle to do the simplest tasks and try to manage being seriously ill. Your days now require a considerable amount of thought and planning while you navigate breathing, fatigue, pain, and eating. I know this song and dance all too well, and I hid a lot of this for a long time until I couldn’t.
I was worried about building my career, not being labeled by one half or pitied by the other. I was concerned I would be passed up for promotions or even fired. I thought of losing my benefits, and my desperately needed income to help cover the expenses that come with illness weigh heavily. When I was at work, I pretended like this part of who I am didn’t exist. Until I really couldn’t hide it any longer and was facing a severe health crisis.
This was the point when I realized I needed to get familiar with laws like the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that protect employees from being fired due to medical reasons. Even with these laws, it can still be challenging to maintain employment and take care of yourself. So, I’ve put together some tips on how not to get fired when you have a chronic illness and maintain excellent professional relationships.
GIVE YOUR BOSS THE DOWN LOW
When I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and multiple vascular compressions, we were still learning the full extent of it. I knew it was time to loop my bosses into what was going on. Legally, you don’t have to tell your boss or supervisor about your illness if you don’t feel comfortable. But I was worried about my health impacting the quality of my work and production level. I also didn’t want co-workers or clients to begin thinking that I was lazy or didn’t care.
So, I scheduled a 1:1 with my supervisor. Luckily, we have a great relationship. He and my boss have been incredible mentors, my biggest fans, and have played a massive role in guiding my career. But, regardless, we’d never had a conversation like this one, and I was still nervous. I have a lot of pride in my work and career and didn’t want to drop any balls or let my team suffer because of it. After working together for almost two years, he knew my work ethic, but it was a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders when I filled him in on what was going on. He was happy to help jump in on client presentations or cover projects while I was at doctor’s appointments or recovering from procedures/surgeries.
LET HUMAN RESOURCES KNOW WHAT’S UP
The next step was to schedule a meeting with HR. This meeting also couldn’t have gone any better for me. Regardless of how your boss responds, you should still talk with HR and ensure someone else with authority and knowledgeable of employee rights is aware of your illness and what, if any, accommodations will need to be made.
When speaking with your boss and HR, it’s also essential that you always keep a record of the communication. Whether this is in the form of a text or email, if you have an in-person meeting, follow up with an email thanking them for their time and a brief recap of what was discussed, key takeaways, and next steps.
ACCOMMODATIONS DON’T MAKE YOU A DIVA
When speaking to your supervisor and HR, don’t be afraid to ask for adjustments and accommodations to keep you healthy and successfully perform your job duties. There are many adjustments or things that can be done to help you complete your job. It could be anything from a standing desk to a specific type of chair or accessibility issues with getting to and from your desk.
For me, it was being allowed to work from home when I needed to due to various reasons. There are days where I can barely take a shower before literally passing out and don’t want to risk a fall or injury and the embarrassment that comes along with it. I also needed time for doctor’s appointments. I had a lot of them and will continue to be a regular in the doctors’ office. So, asking for flexible work hours and coverage when needed was necessary as well. We worked it, created a plan, and I always made sure my team was ready for meetings when I wouldn’t be attending.
KNOW YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS
I have been incredibly fortunate in the amount of support I’ve received. The flexibility, empathy, and flowers have made me a loyal employee, and I sure hope they don’t want to let me go because I may never leave at this point. But not every employer I’ve worked for has been so caring, gracious, and there are probably more employees who can relate to that than my current circumstances. It’s not uncommon if you are met with some resistance, especially if you have an invisible illness and tend to be of the group that often hears, “but you don’t look sick.” If your employer denies you accommodations necessary to perform your job, speak with HR about it. They can be a great resource. It’s also helpful to know if your illness is considered a disability. If so, it might be within your legal right for specific accommodations, and if you aren’t sure, reach out to an employment attorney.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
If you’ve made it to this point, TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Don’t put off medical care or doctor’s appointments. You and, hopefully, your employer is putting in the effort to make things work out to the best of everyone’s ability because they see value in you. So, if you need medical attention but procrastinate getting treatment or help, it could negatively impact and create complications at work. Don’t wait to see a doctor or receive treatment. One thing I continually reminded myself of to keep my priorities in check was, that if I were to die, nobody will stand up at my funeral and share memories of emails or client meetings I had. And that I wouldn’t be remembered for my work as a Sr. Account Executive on the Business Leadership team at MRM. So, remember NOTHING is more important than your own wellbeing.
It’s so important to keep your boss and HR in the loop of what’s happening. If they’re decent human beings, they genuinely care, but this is also important when planning resources and making sure things are covered. Every time I had an appointment, I’d usually fill them in on what the next steps were in my health journey, so there were no surprises, and ALWAYS added my doctor’s appointments to their calendars and had a coverage plan.
CREATE A SUPPORT SYSTEM
Waking up every morning, day-after-day, to battling the physical, emotional, and mental effects of chronic illness are utterly exhausting. It’s essential to have a partner, family member, or close friend you can confide in. Someone who can be a shoulder when you need it, or just lend an ear when you need to get stuff off your chest.
Also, having a mental health professional or life coach who understands chronic illness can be extremely helpful. I have learned some valuable skills that help me manage my stresses and production quality, ultimately helping me feel more confident and sleep better at night.