When You're Constantly Forced to Choose Between Your Job or Your Health


With the rising cost of health care and the cost of living in general, it’s nearly impossible for a middle class person not to work. For people like me who have a chronic illness, the cost of living and health care are even more expensive, and trying to hold down a job can seem impossible at times, too.

I have endometriosis, which is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus is found outside the uterus, possibly attaching to organs in the abdomen. It can cause heavy periods, painful cramps and infertility. I also have ovarian cysts which eventually rupture instead of resolving on their own. While endometriosis and ovarian cysts are common, there is no cure for either, which classifies both as chronic conditions.

Nearly 117 million people in the U.S. have a chronic illness. That makes up nearly half of the U.S. adult population. If so many people have a chronic illness, then why are those who are sick constantly forced to choose between their job and their health?

Job vs. Health: Which Is More Important?

Living with this condition (or any chronic illness, for that matter) makes holding down a job difficult. I have been out of college for a year and working full-time while simultaneously battling the worsening of my condition. Some days I can’t eat or even get out of bed because of the pain and nausea. But, that event I need to go to or that client I have to meet can’t always accommodate my illness. Regularly coming in late or leaving early because of doctor’s appointments doesn’t look good either.

More often than not, chronically ill people are faced with the decision to either take care of themselves or keep their jobs. Of course, there are laws that protect disabled individuals. But, not all workplaces are required to give you paid time off, sick leave, etc. With some companies, if you aren’t at work, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t show up for a lot of your shifts, then you can get fired.

Getting and Maintaining a Job

Many companies ask you to fill out a voluntary disability self-identification form when applying for a job. The first paragraph of the form might say:

Because we do business with the government, we must reach out to, hire, and provide equal opportunity to qualified people with disabilities. To help us measure how well we are doing, we are asking you to tell us if you have a disability or if you ever had a disability. Completing this form is voluntary, but we hope that you will choose to fill it out. If you are applying for a job, any answer you give will be kept private and will not be used against you in any way.

When I started my job search I felt compelled to disclose my illness on this form, but after about two months, I noticed I wasn’t getting any responses from the multiple positions I applied for. The next round of applications I sent out, I either did not fill out the form or said I did not have a disability, and I started getting responses from potential employers. Is it just a coincidence? I really don’t think it is.

The bad news is, there’s nothing you can do if you are disqualified from a position because of your illness. There’s usually no way to prove that you were disqualified because of your disability, because the employer can say you were not a good fit for the position or not qualified for it.

Because of this, many chronically ill people lie on this form and try to hide their illness. You are not legally required to tell your employer about your health problems, especially during the interview process. But once you are hired and notice that it may affect your work, it might be a good idea to say something.

“I’m OK.”

The problem with a lot of chronic illnesses is that they are “invisible,” meaning you can’t see the illness on the outside. Since a lot of these illnesses are invisible, people who are sick may feel the need to hide their illness. “I’m OK” is probably a chronically ill person’s favorite phrase. A person with a chronic condition could be smiling and laughing on the outside but feel like absolute hell on the inside. But we may not want to draw attention to our illness, so we hide it behind smiles and “I’m OK”s.

Another problem with these invisible diseases is that people often think we are faking it. When most people think of someone who is “chronically ill,” they think of a patient with cancer who has lost their hair from chemotherapy or a person in a wheelchair. They don’t usually think of someone who looks well and gets up and goes to work every day. Unfortunately for most people, seeing is believing; if they can’t see it, they don’t believe it.

I was transparent with my previous employer about my condition, and many times after a doctor’s appointment or a sick day I was told to “grin and bear it” and try to make it into work. I looked OK on the outside, so my supervisor couldn’t understand that my insides felt like they were being torn apart and that it was all I could do to get out of bed. Again, in these situations, we are forced to choose between our health and our career.

Work Hard, Fight Harder

Unfortunately, those of us with chronic illnesses may have to work harder than those without. On top of working a job full-time, we are fighting our disease full-time, too. Having a chronic illness is its own full-time job, and in most cases, it comes with overtime.

In our careers we will have to work harder to do good work and prove that we are able, even though on a government form it says we are disabled. Work hard at your job and fight your disease even harder. But remember to take care of yourself. In my opinion, at the end of the day, your health is more important than a paycheck. So when it comes to choosing between a job and your health, I recommend choosing your health. Jobs will come and go, but you only get one life.

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Thinkstock photo by Purestock

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