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My Tips for Chronic Illness Warriors in the Startup Industry

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Developing a chronic illness was one heck of a career journey. You have to be as creative as possible to work around the fact you are living with an illness and no one really cares. They care about their company goals, making revenue and ensuring you are the right team member for the job. As someone who had to deal with these chronic diseases in the workplace, I had to put on an act of “feeling fine” all the time. It was hard to play it normal when deep inside I was struggling with chronic pain.

It was hard to tell my employer what I was going through because I felt that in most cases I would be judged and people just don’t care. They only care about what you can achieve for them. Also, they give you perks that don’t really help you achieve your health goals. I remember looking through my perks and they were all for people who lived “normal” lives. I never chose perks as part of my compensation package because I didn’t feel they were taking me anywhere. I wanted to live a wholesome and healthy life. Beyond anything, I wanted to live a life without constant pain.

I worked with my executives and entrepreneurs and most of them would tell me things that made me feel out of my element in more ways than one. They didn’t understand me, and that was the biggest issue.

Here are some of the issues I battled in the workplace:

1.”But you don’t look sick.”

Most executives would say I looked just fine, but they didn’t understand the pain I was facing with my diseases and the neurological symptoms that slowed me down in more ways than one. When I was judged based on how I looked, I felt awful inside. I worked really hard to come off as a “normal” person but deep inside I was grieving and hoping they could have some compassion for me. Mostly I realized that unless you have an illness, you will probably not understand someone who is actually dealing with it.

In this case, I had to tell the executives upfront and how I was dealing with these symptoms. I learned how to set healthy boundaries that would allow me to live a healthy lifestyle and maintain my workload. Most of the time I was fired because employers didn’t care about healthy lifestyles or what people are going through in their personal lives.

2. “Don’t worry, you’ll be back to normal in no time.”

When someone is dealing with chronic inflammation, it doesn’t just go away. There is no magic pill and it isn’t like the flu. I hope employers take this into consideration when they are working with someone who has a setback and didn’t have the same opportunities as a healthy person. Most people will judge you based on your performance, but when you tell them you are not feeling well or you have symptoms of an illness, they will see it as a weakness or an excuse. I just want to help my peers who are facing these issues in the workplace know that you are not alone.

If you are an employer, please understand that people who have these illnesses are not incapable, and there is nothing wrong with their capacity to learn. They are able to achieve anything they put their minds to. If there was one thing I wanted my executives to know, it was: have a little more patience with me. I am able to get the work done, probably not like someone who has a fully functioning body, but I will always give it my best shot. I had to work way harder than the average person without any acknowledgment or extra love. It was tough to get through the days and most employers, unless they have gone through something life-changing themselves, will not understand you. I try to let them know beforehand and how it is a permanent disease but it doesn’t affect my capabilities. I have to put in a lot more effort, but I let them know the boundaries before we start working so I am not overcommitting.

3. “We all get tired.”

I remember leaving the office one day and the employer told me, “yes, Sweta, we all get tired.” Back then I didn’t know how to fully express myself in a way that they would understand me and what I was feeling. However, years later I discovered how being tired is so different from being in a state of chronic fatigue. When your body is always fighting inflammation, it doesn’t give you a break and this is what actually slows down your neurological programming. It makes you feel that you are not able to do much and at a slower pace than most. It isn’t just a state of mind.

When the employer is able to comprehend the nature of the inflammation in the body and the fight the person is facing within themselves, they are able to help them become better performers. I never worked with employers who encouraged me. At the time I didn’t need the motivation, I was self-motivated but a little extra compassion would have gone a long way. I hope employers today read this and are able to understand people who are dealing with autoimmune conditions.

Most employers do not acknowledge the personal health of a person, and it is all of a sudden a weakness when they have a chronic condition. We must work together to break this stigma so we can create unity around us. I and many others did not choose the illness we have, but we have to make the best of it.

Getty image by Fizkes.

Originally published: November 4, 2020
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