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Working With Chronic Illness: Finding Long-Term Success at Your Job

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You’ve found yourself working at a job or role for a bit of time — it’s going OK, but maybe there are some things that don’t feel quite right or working for you that you’re starting to notice. When you have a chronic illness, it’s important to pace your energy between all aspects of life and yes, that includes the time you spend working.

Let’s find some takeaways so you can prepare for or sustain long-term success with your job.

What’s working for you? What’s not?

Sometimes we forget to step back and look back at the big and small picture. We often tend to look at one or the other.

We forget that it can take a lot of little things to make us feel excited and happy to be at work, especially as our time in that role continues. The goal here is to examine what’s not feeling right so it can be remedied.

The faster you pinpoint these items, the sooner you can address them rather than letting them sit with you and get worse over time, which can sometimes lead to hating your job and making work much harder.

It’s time to determine which work attribute belongs where. Here’s a list to get you started.

 Your work location:

  • At-home or in-office
  • Determine any accommodations or needs to perform well or if anything is lacking in this area

Your work hours/schedule:

  • The schedule works for your needs 
  • Hours work for your peak performance time
  • Flexibility to uphold your self-care and medical appointments

Your workload:

  • Examine your workload to determine if it’s reasonable 
  • Provides a sense of joy, excitement, purpose, etc.
  • Access to knowledge or skill set to accomplish your responsibilities or is there anything missing

Your manager/coworkers:

  • Treated with respect and equality 
  • Team camaraderie
  • A clear growth path available for your career development

Your employer’s work culture:

  • Aligns with your personal values 
  • Noting any red flags or concerns 
  • Desire to grow with them or not 

 Speak Up – Seriously!

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned from my career is getting comfortable speaking up. It sounds so simple, but it’s one of my struggle points. I’ve had to do things I wish I never had to do and missed out on things I wanted to do because I didn’t have the courage to speak up.

From a management perspective, it’s one thing to recognize natural skills from your team, but it’s a whole other story when it comes to what they actually enjoy doing or working on. Finding that balance will be much easier if you speak up and make your career feel more fulfilling.

Here are some career moments where you should speak up:

When another department/area of the workplace captured your interest:

  • This can allow a career development/growth pathway
  • Cross-training employees is important
  • This will help build out your resume/skills

When you’re struggling:

  • Whether it’s mental, physical, or both — the chances are high that your work output is being impacted
  • This can be a difficult conversation to have but the pandemic and shift toward mental/physical well-being is slowly making its way into the workplace finally
  • Your employer may offer benefits that can help you get back on track and you might not know this unless you bring it up

When a position is created/open that you want:

  • Restructure happens all the time in the workplace, if something opens or a new role may be created, and it excites you — tell the right people so you’re considered for that
  • Employers want to retain employees long-term and sometimes we forget that we can have a say in where we want to go within a company

When you really don’t want to do something due to your condition(s):

  • This may range from traveling needs to identifying specific triggers

Your Productivity Will Change Daily – Be OK with That

When you have a chronic illness, it’s easy to compare yourself to others who may be healthier in whatever way, and it can be hard to not fall into that comparison trap. You may hear stories about how they run their kids all over for sports, without skipping a beat, despite fighting a cold and not calling in at all.

It can strike a lot of emotions, but one thing that is critical to remember is everyone’s productivity from day to day varies, whether you see it or not.

We constantly want to give our all day in, day out, because we worry that our health conditions will make us appear as lazy, unreliable, limited, not promotable, and so much more. The problem with that thinking is you cannot give it your all, all the time, and neither can anyone else, chronic illness or not. It’s impossible and when you do, you’re likely going to start noticing the impact of it.

The impact might look like this:

  • Less resilient to stress
  • No energy left to take care of yourself in the ways you should be
  • Wanting to sleep all the time
  • Never truly decompressing from work
  • Loss of interest to do things outside of work
  • Physical repercussions (Think: more flare-ups)
  • A restless mind

Try your very best to understand how to pace yourself, energy, or spoons, and know that this is a normal lesson/reality check that many others experience and worry about with a chronic illness.

Work Hacks for the Unexpected Flare-Up

Sometimes our illnesses catch us off guard or show up suddenly with such force they cannot be ignored, it always feels like they may hit us at the worst possible times too. Despite how many flares or symptoms we experience, we tend to know what we need to do to recover from them.

Now keep in mind that there may be days your flares are too much to function. If this happens, use a sick day because that’s why we have them.

If your flare-up allows you to still function for some work capacity, here are some work hacks that might make things easier. 

Dealing with flare-ups during work:

Consider your environment:

  • For in-office roles: Ask if you can work from home rather than using a sick day
  • For remote roles: Keep your camera off for any meetings needed that day

Prioritize your workload:

  • Evaluate what you need to accomplish today minimally
  • Determine what can wait until you’re feeling better
  • Extend assignment/task deadline with approval
  • Consider asking for help from your team if something is time-sensitive 

Take more breaks than usual:

  • Your body is fighting a flare, give it time to rest between tasks
  • Consider resting/naps in time increments

Determine any shortcuts:

  • Order delivery/takeout
  • Use all your comfort items while working
  • Can you come in early/late?

I know you can find sustainability within your role, but be patient with yourself as you learn how to do that because everyone is going to have a unique approach to succeeding at work with a chronic illness.

The final approach won’t matter, all that matters is that it works for you — you’ve got this!

This article is part of a series on Working With Chronic Illness. Read more here:

Originally published: September 5, 2022
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