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Working Through the Pain: When I Told My Boss I Have Fibromyalgia

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Since being diagnosed with fibromyalgia I spend a lot of time in online support groups. I have discovered that these groups are probably the best way to meet other people with your condition. You can vent and whine, speak freely and find hundreds of others who know exactly what you are going through. These groups have been a lifesaver for me, sometimes literally. People often ask questions to the group like “What do you think this pain could be?” and “Does anyone use any natural supplements for fatigue?” and so on. But there is one question I see pop up pretty frequently that brings a rush of anger to my face every time I see it: “Should I tell my new employer I have fibromyalgia?”

The fact that, in 2016, anyone has to ask that is wrong in so many ways. First off, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against qualified individuals for a medical reason or disability. Secondly, why do we feel so much fear about our condition? The people asking this question are afraid of being treated differently, losing hours and promotions, and even losing their job altogether. And to be honest, I was one of those people. Last year my rotator cuff tore and as resulted in tendinitis that I had to go on a medical leave for. I am a dog groomer so without a right shoulder it is impossible to do my job. I was gone for months and as my time off piled up, I began to worry that I was going to be replaced even though my job is protected by the Family Medical Leave Act. When my fibromyalgia diagnosis came, I was even more terrified. I was the manager of an extremely busy grooming salon and there was an incredible amount of pressure on me. I was also working toward a promotion. How was fibromyalgia going to affect this?

I sat down in the office with my boss who was a wonderful manager and an even better mentor. My hands were shaking and I could feel tears stinging my eyes as I fumbled for the words to tell him of my diagnosis. I had this scene playing out in my head of me telling him and him saying that my career was over. When I finally spit it out, he looked at me and I braced myself.  “Well, that’s good news! You can handle that! It could have been much worse. Just make sure to take care of yourself,” he said. I was so relieved I felt like I melted.

So when I moved out of state and transferred to a new salon, I felt confident enough to tell my new boss right up front that I have fibromyalgia and explained how it can affect me at work sometimes but that I have learned how to work with it. He was also supportive and has never once brought up my condition or used it against me.

However, as I scroll through my support groups and read these gut-wrenching stories about people’s hours getting cut and losing their jobs I want to scream. I want to march into their office and shake their managers.

We are not our illness. We can do it. We might forget something or be sluggish some days or need to sit down if our job requires us to stand. But we are tough and determined. If fibromyalgia has taught me anything it’s that we have to work twice as hard as a healthy person and we are determined to prove that we can do it. Don’t doubt us. Fibromyalgia is a challenge we did not have a choice in taking. But do you know what can impede us? Stress. And do you know what one of the most stressful factors in life is? Having and maintaining a job. So when we feel that our job, our source of income and often medical insurance, is being threatened, it exacerbates our symptoms. If you put the idea in our heads that we might not have a job, we will not sleep, our pain will increase tremendously, we will be me forgetful and we will become depressed. That is what you should be afraid of, boss.

So instead of making us feel threatened because you doubt our capabilities, why don’t you try making us feel supported? There is nothing more motivating than that for healthy and sick people.  My boss never doubts me so I never doubt me. I feel secure enough to leave work early if my pain gets too high and secure enough to laugh it off when I forget something in my fibro fog. But you know what else? I work as hard as I can for my boss and give 110 percent always because I want to.

Please, friends. I encourage you to not be afraid to speak up and be open and honest about not just your illness but about your skills and capabilities, too. Be confident and take the challenge, if you can. Don’t let your boss’ doubt take hold of you. Prove him or her wrong. And if he or she still doubts you, it might be time to look for a new job anyway because no one, healthy or sick, can work for someone like that anyway.

Originally published: October 20, 2016
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