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What You Should Know About Returning to Work With Chronic Illness

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Returning to work after any chronic illness can feel daunting and stressful. Sometimes it may feel easier to ask the doctor for another note and stay off of work rather than returning. Getting back into work can help you, though, as it may give you a purpose and add structure to your days. As a life coach, returning to work with chronic illness is an area in which I often work with clients so that their return to work is not only as smooth as possible but is also a positive experience.

Depending on the absence policy of your employer, you may have had meetings with your employer while you were off work. These can often be the starting point for you returning to work. I know how daunting these meetings can be, but I also know that with preparation and guidance, they can also be really productive. You may be able to take a work colleague or a union representative with you to your meetings too.

At these meetings, I suggest being open with your employer about what your condition is and how it affects you. For instance, my main condition is psoriatic arthritis, so I gave my manager details on my condition and sent her a link to the Versus Arthritis website. Opening up about your symptoms may be especially relevant if you have been diagnosed with a new condition while you were off of work. I understand that you might feel worried about sharing information on your health, but it’s also important to remember that your manager has a duty to keep your health information confidential. Getting your supervisors acquainted with your condition can help you in the future as you learn to manage your health.

Prior to your meeting, think about what a successful return to work will look like for you. Going straight back to do your role full-time might seem really daunting, but your employer may offer a phased return or some temporary alternative duties to help you ease back into your job. Go into this meeting with an idea of what you think needs to happen before you return to work. You may not always get what you first ask for, but it’s better to ask and negotiate later than not to ask at all. In the United Kingdom, there are government agencies that can help you return to work. There is also useful legal information on the ACAS website.

A larger employer will likely have access to an occupational health department. These departments have qualified nurses and doctors who specialize in advising your employer on the health of their workload. If you can, meeting with occupational health is a good idea. Preparation for this appointment is key, and once again, it may be helpful to take in any diagnosis letters or details about your appointments. Occupational health can be a useful asset in terms of recommending any adaptations to your role too. They can also help you look into how you can most successfully do your job with your diagnosis.

You may be ready to go back to work, but I still highly recommend that you take these steps. There usually isn’t an optimal point for returning to work, but it may be harder to return to work if you are away for longer. Preparation can help get you ready, but your preparation will depend a lot on what your condition is and why you have been off work. Improving your mental and physical health during the last few weeks before you return is important. If you have been in bed most of the day while you have been off work, start small, and try to do a little bit more each day. Taking a short walk every day or occasionally having coffee out with a friend may help you ease back into the physical demands you may face at work.

I call this “getting work-ready.” What this stage looks like will depend on your condition, how long you have been off, and what your job is. A life coach can work with you to formulate a “return to work” plan. Small steps may be more effective than large ones, and slowly planning ahead may reduce the chances of a relapse.

If you need to adjust your job duties or schedule, try to get your accommodations in place before you return to work. You may need physical changes to your workspace, different hours, or more breaks. The important thing is to ask for accommodations you think will make your work life easier and enable you to keep working.

Getting yourself in the best possible mental state prior to returning to work is also helpful. I personally found that spending time in my garden and practicing mindfulness helped me get myself ready to return to work. These are still activities I turn to when life is getting hard and I feel myself slipping backwards.

I know a lot of people worry about the reactions of your colleagues when you return and how they will act around you. How you approach this part of going back to work may depend on the relationships that you have with your coworkers. You only need to tell others about your condition if you feel comfortable. You can also remind yourself that you don’t need to justify your time off. You were ill, so you needed to be off. Others have no right to make you feel guilty for taking time off.

Your first day back at work may feel like a child’s first day of school, and there is nothing wrong with treating it like that. You may even treat yourself to new clothes and a new lunch bag if you’re able to because little things can help you feel good when you return to work. Go into work with your head held high — after all, having a positive attitude can make your return to work easier. At the end of the first day back to work, go home and reflect. Give yourself a massive pat on the back because you’ve made it back to work.

Hopefully, you will have a “return to work” meeting with your manager on your first day back to work. This is a good time to confirm any adjustments that you feel you need. Asking for regular review meetings is also good. You can also discuss the future in this meeting and share the likely progression of your disease. It also may be important to talk through how your manager can know if you start to struggle in the future. Having a supportive manager can be a major help in trying to stay well at work in the future. There may be times when you struggle, but the support of your manager can really help in your return to work.

I hope you find this guidance helpful for your own return to work. Discussing your needs before you return, making accommodations, and being open about your condition with your supervisors may help you succeed as you arrive back at the office after being ill.

This story originally appeared on Angela Marie Life Coach.
Getty image by Luis Alvarez.

Originally published: June 13, 2022
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