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What Happened When I Worked a Physical Job With Fibromyalgia

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About a year ago, my health was slightly better than it is now. I needed work, but opportunities were limited as a result of the pandemic. I started a three-month contract job that involved building fences.

I had no prior experience building fences, but I knew it would be hard work. I worried about what pulling wires and heavy lifting might do to my body. Due to these concerns, I disclosed my condition and shared my difficulties with working in the heat, but the company decided to hire me anyway. I said I may need some accommodations for my health, and they were seemingly fine with that.

Over my first two weeks at the new job, I became more confident in my ability to build a fence, and I was keeping up with the rest of the team. I was keeping hydrated with electrolytes to avoid heat stress and migraines. (We were doing physically demanding work at the peak of summer.)

My body changed. I became stronger. Over time, my muscles became more defined. I was able to lift things I wasn’t able to lift before. I was working a physical job five days a week — from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. — so my body was forced to adapt. I was energetic. I was doing well at work. However, by the time I got home, I would collapse onto the couch and fall into a deep sleep. I gave every ounce of my energy to this job and had none left at the end of the day.

I was keeping up with the rest of the team, but some days were harder than others. I looked young, fit, and healthy, so it was difficult for my team leader to allow certain accommodations for me. He was aware of my condition, and I had made it clear that sometimes I’d need to take a break to keep hydrated. That would be as simple as walking back to my car to have a drink, which would take no more than two minutes. This didn’t impact him in any way due to the fact that I had been assigned work to do on my own, so nobody was waiting for me.

On one particular day we were working in the middle of a heat wave. I was pulling down an old fence while fully exposed to the sun. It was one of those days when I’d need more frequent breaks. My team leader watched me from across the paddock as I walked to the car for some water. Instead of letting me do what I needed to do and continuing his own work, he stormed over to me angrily to tell me off.

“We’ve got a job to do, and we have certain expectations, so you need to pick up the pace,” he said. “I’m not asking for 20 percent more or even 15 percent more, just five percent more from you. I need to push you to work harder so you get better.”

He didn’t understand — despite the number of times I explained to him that I was doing my best. There was no “getting better” because my condition wasn’t going away. I was already pushing myself, and I couldn’t push myself any further without significantly impacting my health. I needed water to avoid migraine. I needed to take care of myself, otherwise I’d be too unwell to show up to work the next day. I needed small accommodations for my health so I could keep up with the rest of the team. There wasn’t any room for improvement. He never understood.

I informed our employer of the things my team leader was saying to me. He got a stern talking-to — during which they also tried to explain my condition and the accommodations I would need. He started being nice to me after that, telling me how well I was actually doing.

I was doing well. I always got the job done to a very high standard, especially when I took the time to take care of my health.

A few weeks later, the weather was cooling down. I was able to work longer without needing a drink break, just like the other members of the team.

He told me, “You’re doing so much better — you’re not taking as many breaks anymore. You used to stop every 15 minutes — now it’s only every two hours!” Not only was he exaggerating about the frequency of my breaks, but he also started saying this to every other staff member or landowner we met on site. This was an insulting “compliment” that wasn’t only inaccurate — it was degrading too. It made me feel as though I wasn’t “good enough” before — when I was simply taking necessary drink breaks during a severe heat wave. I was enraged. If I ever tried to correct him, he would get angry and yell at me.

He would then go on to tell other people about my condition.

“She has this condition,” he would say, before looking over to me to pronounce “fibromyalgia” for him. Sometimes he would explain fibromyalgia wrong, forcing me to correct him. He took away my ability to choose whether or not to disclose my condition. Just because I had disclosed my condition to him didn’t mean he was allowed to then disclose it to others on my behalf. Sometimes people who actually knew what fibromyalgia was then looked at me and said, “Oh no — you poor thing.” I suppose they were probably trying to be nice, but I’m not looking for pity.

Then I reached my breaking point. On April 13, 2021, I had been pulling down a fence all morning. This was a lot of hard work. There was meant to be only 30 meters of fencing to remove, but it ended up being 150 meters. Due to this work, I had a sore back, and my hands were in pain. Afterwards, my team leader asked me to help him finish the fence we had spent the last week constructing. He asked me to go along the fence and staple mesh to the wires.

I knew what to do because our employer had explained it to me a few days prior. We were told to use the staple gun to attach the mesh to the wires, going along the top wire first and then coming back for the bottom two wires. I found this method to be easier on my body. Stapling the top wire first holds the mesh in place and makes it easier to staple the bottom two wires because all of the weight has been lifted. It’s much easier on my hands this way and strains my  back a lot less.

I started stapling along the top wire, but my team leader stopped me. He told me, “Don’t just do the top wire — you have to do the bottom wires too.” I explained I was just doing the top wire first and coming back to do the other two like we had been told. He then got angry and took the staple gun away from me to show me how he wanted me to do it. He wanted me to staple one at a time from top to bottom and move along that way instead. He didn’t care that our employer had told us to do it differently — because our employer wasn’t there at the time.

Unfortunately, I was in a lot of pain, and I found my team leader’s method much more painful on my body. He became angry when I explained this to him, so I started doing the staples the way he asked me to.

He could see I was struggling and decided to point it out, making me feel worse. He said, “I can see you’re upset — what are you upset about?”

I responded, “It’s just a lot of things. I don’t want to get into it right now, I just want to finish the job.” 

He kept pressing me to tell him what was wrong, getting more and more angry, and making assumptions about why I was upset. I headed to the other side of the fence to get away from him, and we finished the job soon after.

In the car on the way back to the depot, he continued pressing me about why I was upset. I told him about my pain and explained again why I preferred to do the top wire first. He immediately raised his voice and said, “Well, why is it OK for you to do this differently than the others do?”

I responded, “Because the others don’t have fibromyalgia.”

Never mind that I didn’t actually do the process “differently” — I did it the way he asked, sacrificing my pain level to keep the peace.

He then said, “Think about this. If I was working, and my team leader wanted me to do something one way but then I did it another way, my team leader would fire me for defying his orders.” 

I replied, “Well, if you were doing the process differently because of a disability that had been previously discussed, then that would be an unfair dismissal. That’s discrimination. The team leader would have failed to provide necessary accommodations for your disability.”

He got visibly flustered and raised his voice, saying, “Did you know how difficult fencing was before you started this job? Did you know you would struggle this much?”

I responded, “Yes, but I will struggle with everything I do. That’s how it is. There’s nothing I can do to change that, but I can do small things differently to make things easier.”

My team leader suddenly went quiet.

I quit my job that day. I told my fellow team members I wouldn’t be coming back, and they understood why.

The team leader called me the next day and asked if he was the reason I quit.

I lied to him, telling him it wasn’t because of him.

“It’s just my health,” I said.

The truth is, I quit because of him. My team leader just didn’t seem to have the ability to understand how his behavior was affecting me, so in my mind, there was no point telling him the truth. I thought it would just make him angry again.

I had tried to reason with him and failed. He seemed like he wasn’t about to change his behavior anytime soon. Sometimes you can’t educate people about your condition — no matter what you say or how many different ways you say it. Sometimes it may be better to leave a situation because some people are incapable of even trying to understand you.

I explained everything to our employer. I never found out if any action was taken against my team leader as a result, but I was informed that there would be a discussion with him. My employer apologized for not providing the team leader with proper support and education. My employer admitted the company needed to do better because they really didn’t provide a supportive or inclusive work environment.

It’s been almost a year, and I’m still unemployed.

Sometimes I think I’m just unemployed because my health has declined. I’m in the process of being diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) now, which could further explain my heat intolerance, dizziness, and shortness of breath that I have been struggling with for a few years.

Part of me believes no matter where I work, I will face discrimination and bias. I have had these experiences in every workplace I have ever been in.

No equal opportunity. No accommodations. Unrealistic expectations.  

I can’t expose myself to the same employment abuse I’ve survived at my past jobs. That’s too much injustice for someone who’s already traumatized, someone who’s already been hurt so much. Never again — enough is enough.

I’m happy being unemployed. I’m grateful to be in a position where I can be unemployed, and my partner can support me. I might start my own business one day, but for now, I’m actually enjoying the peace and quiet. I need time to heal and recover. I need time to focus on myself and do things that make me happy.

Getty image by lucentius.

Originally published: March 25, 2022
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