Managing your chronic illness is a full-time job. At home, you may need to spend countless hours focused on your health. But putting your health first is much harder when you have to work a professional job. Working with a chronic illness can be downright hard. This is especially true when you’re expected to perform just like other people who aren’t chronically ill.
You might be trying to “fake it till you make it.”
Or, fighting with the urge to “not be sick” because it’s not allowed or you can’t afford to be ill.
There are so many questions that can run through your mind when you’re not feeling well. Trying to manage a chronic health condition while also managing financial pressure is hard.
This pressure and insecurity can make you feel worried, incompetent and like a failure, because it’s hard to keep up sometimes. Whether you’re struggling to manage health while working or contemplating how to return to work after a period of recovery, it’s important to have strategies to make your health needs a priority while you’re there.
Before we get into strategies to use when working with a chronic illness, here are some points to consider.
Does your job support prioritizing your health problems?
Many employers and companies do not have norms or systems in place that help their employees prioritize their health in the workplace. As a Chronic Illness Therapist I have worked with many clients who express feeling frustrated, overwhelmed and worry about their jobs. Fears that they may either lose their job or have to stop working altogether abound. This can range from the conditions at work making them more sick or simply not allowing them to take steps to take care of themselves while on the clock.
Here are some signs that your job doesn’t support you in prioritizing your health:
- You’re expected to work overtime until the job is done, regardless of how you feel.
- You’re pressured to take on extra work if you need or request time off.
- Team members do not support your work tasks while you’re away.
- Team members or supervisors become angry when you request time off.
- Health accommodations are denied or approached with complaints.
- You’re being micromanaged by peers or your supervisor.
- Your job does not offer paid time off for illness or doctor’s appointments.
- Your employer does not check on the well-being of their staff. For example, “How are you feeling? I know this project has been pretty demanding.”
- Even with conversations about your illness or quality of life your employer doesn’t offer support to help you maintain a healthy lifestyle or a balanced work schedule.
Be honest about your limits
It’s important from the outset that you’re honest with yourself about what’s feasible for you right now. Approach work with a realistic set of expectations about what you can, and cannot do, because of the current state of your health.
I get it. This is not always easy to do because no one wants to be reminded of their limitations (especially when it’s related to your chronic condition). It can bring you to a low place and make you feel like nothing is possible, even in times when it is.
Consider that facing your limits is a way of showing self-compassion. By relieving yourself of the pressure to hold on to unfair expectations , you are managing your chronic illness with grace and compassion. This helps reduce the secondary emotional stress of your illness that can ultimately cause you more harm and suffering.
Set personal boundaries
Respect your limits and set personal boundaries at work so you can be more successful at the tasks you’re able to complete. Doing this gives you more hope and directs your focus to what’s possible.
Some examples of boundaries include saying “no” to overtime, taking a sick day when needed, spreading meetings out to make time for recovery and self-care, and letting others know what you need to get the job done (i.e., more time between deadlines).
Whatever your current limits are, use this information to guide you in doing things differently. Talk with your doctor to learn more about how to make sense of your limits and move forward as best as possible.
Set realistic benchmarks for returning to work
Going back to work after a time off to manage your chronic illness or health problem eventually leads to going back. But, how do you know when it’s the best time to go back to work, especially when you don’t feel like yourself?
Do your current limitations interfere with doing your job?
Are you able to take care of yourself when you return?
Or will working make you feel worse and lead to a potential setback?
These are tough questions to answer, and there’s not a one size fits all approach to them.
It can be difficult to know when it’s best to return to work, especially if your recovery has taken longer than anticipated or your symptoms are lingering. However, setting realistic benchmarks with your medical provider can give you clarity on what to look for.
First, set benchmarks based on home activities that transfer to the work environment. Examples include:
- Keeping a consistent wake-up schedule (aligned with your work routine)
- Increased endurance to carry out chores, maintain your hygiene or having fun (i.e., watching television, reading, hobbies, playing games etc.)
- Sitting or walking for periods of time
- Speaking and connecting with loved ones
- Maintaining your attention on one activity for a period of consistent time
After thinking about these questions, ask yourself one more: How does your body respond when doing these activities?
Notice how long it takes for your body to begin showing signs of fatigue or other chronic health symptoms. Observing your body’s response during recovery can help you determine if returning to work is feasible right now.
And if it is, this next thing to consider is HOW you return to work. Working with a chronic condition is possible, but thinking about the amount of hours required and how you approach work tasks within your current status will put you in a position to succeed.
Make Adjustments to Support Working with Your Condition
One of the biggest adjustments to make when living with a chronic illness is noticing when your body responds differently than it used to. And for many people who have been diagnosed for a while, the adjustment comes with how you compare yourself to others in the workplace.
No judgment here. Those comparisons make you human. It’s difficult not seeing how things have changed for you since your diagnosis. The urge to compare or be reminded of what’s changed is part of how you grieve your chronic illness. Some days are harder than others.
Just remember that in order to support yourself in performing well, and doing what you love at work, you’ll need to make some adjustments in how you do the daily tasks. These chronic illness management tips can help you have more good days with your chronic condition.
Here are some examples of adjustments you can make to ease your stress while working with a chronic illness:
- Pace yourself throughout the day and on specific tasks
- Take breaks to recover (i.e., hydration, lunch, rest your mind, listen to calming music, gentle movement etc.)
- Have your health management items prepared and ready to use when needed (i.e., medication, heating pad, ice pack, mobility supports, etc.)
- Block out time between meetings, if possible
- Make your workspace as comfortable as possible (chair padding, portable fan or heater, standing desk, extra layer of clothing, adjustable lighting, stool for elevating your feet etc.)
- Leave work at work. Shut the laptop, change out of your work clothes, and focus on your personal life/loved ones outside of work hours.
Develop a Health-Focused Routine
With all that can change and feel unpredictable during the day with your chronic condition, this reality can make you feel overwhelmed as you try to make work a priority. Maintaining health-focused practices in your daily routine can help reduce stress and support your day-to-day work habits.
Here are some health-focused routines to work towards:
- Develop a sleep hygiene plan with healthy waking and bed times etc.)
- Do things that make you feel joy everyday (big or small)
- Keep a schedule to monitor your health plan so you stay on track through out the day/week
Request Work Accommodations as Needed
It’s sometimes hard to know when to ask for help, especially if your body doesn’t respond the same day by day. It’s also hard when people give you reasons to believe it’s not OK to ask for help. Any health care provider will tell you that workplace accommodations are there for a reason, the primary of which is to help you.
People with chronic conditions have hard days from time to time. But taking proactive steps to request work accommodations for flare ups or health limitations is a key way to prioritize your needs.
Accommodations support you both while you’re at work and when you need to take time away from work to recover from various health challenges. Even though many people feel guilty asking for accommodations, it is your legal right to request and receive them in the workplace according to The Americans with Disabilities Act.
Be mindful that there is typically a requirement to have worked with an employer a certain amount of time before certain benefits are available. But if you have been employed for a while, it’s always worth looking into.
Communicate your needs to your employer
I know it can get confusing to figure out what exactly to share with your employer. One piece of advice my clients often share worked for them is to disclose only what you feel safe to share and on a “need-to-know basis.” Your employer does not need all the details about your chronic condition. But, they need to know that you require reasonable accommodations to perform duties due to a medical condition.
The conversation with your employer can be informal and face-to-face, or it could be through a formal request in writing. You may also have an Human Resources (HR) department that fields such requests and they can advise you about what to disclose to your boss.
In some cases, your employer may ask for your request for accommodations in writing, but your informal request (discussion) is still legally required to be considered.
FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act)
According to the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees are eligible for 12-weeks of leave within a 12-month period for a medical condition for yourself or a loved one in your care. Families of covered service members are eligible for up to 26-weeks of leave to care for their loved one with an injury or illness. Employee jobs are protected and they use their paid time off during that time away from work.
I advise clients to look into FMLA as it can help many people in health-related situations.
Short-Term Disability (STD), also known as Temporary Disability Insurance, provides you payment while away from work for a medical reason. Many employers offer this as a benefit to their employees, and you can purchase a Short-Term Disability Insurance package through an outside company. Payments may be less than your typical pay from your job.
I also advise clients to look into Short-Term Disability as that too can help many people.
Long-term disability (LTD) is offered similarly to short-term plans but for longer periods of time, spanning two or more years. The length of coverage may vary between insurance providers and employer policies, so be sure to learn what benefits are available to you.
If you have been sick for two or more years, LTD may be able to help you.
Express Your Needs with Loved Ones
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of a supportive employer when working with a chronic condition, but having supportive loved ones helps you strike a balance with work and your personal life. Talk with your loved ones about your needs, limitations, challenges with work and how they can help you make necessary adjustments. They can be a source of encouragement for you along the way.
Next Steps for Adjusting to Life with a Chronic Illness
Whether you’ve been recently diagnosed with a chronic condition or you’ve been living with it for a while, questions about work or school can weigh on you. I help teens, adults and families who are living with chronic illnesses cope with the emotional toll that it can bring in different areas of your life.
Therapy is a powerful tool that can help you find meaning while navigating major transitions like work adjustments with a chronic illness. The skills you learn in therapy help make the journey more bearable. You don’t have to figure this out alone.
Schedule your first appointment with me by booking a free 15-minute consultation.