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Why Having a Boss Who Understands Chronic Illness Is So Important

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Over the years, I’ve learned that most employers don’t really care about you or your health. In fact, I have been forced to work shifts even while sick and have even lost jobs due to hospitalizations and health issues causing me to miss significant amounts of work in a year’s time. I know I’m not alone in this, and it’s sad that we live in a world where most companies are more concerned about their bottom line than they are with the physical and mental health of their employees.

However, my most recent employer has shown me that not all companies think this way. In fact, I think I’ve finally found a boss who understands what it’s like to live with chronic illness — and it makes a huge difference.

I recently woke up to a painful migraine attack on a Monday morning. Since my company kicks off each work week with a team meeting over Zoom, I stayed in bed until the last possible second, then quickly hopped onto the call. I was still wearing pajamas and I didn’t comb my hair, but I tried to conceal the ice pack on my forehead with a beanie.

About two minutes into the meeting, my boss sent me a direct message that simply said, “Are you feeling alright today?” When I replied with the word “migraine,” she said, “I’m so sorry! If the meeting is too much, you can absolutely hop off!”

Her messages didn’t stop there, either. In fact, she checked on me two more times that day, and each time she reminded me that I could flex hours if needed or even take a sick day if I’d rather. There weren’t any lectures about deadlines or professionalism, just genuine concern for my health.

I think many employers are under the impression that providing subsidized insurance and a few sick days is sufficient enough support for employees who live with chronic illnesses. While these perks are definitely appreciated, they don’t provide what most of us who live with a chronic condition seek, which is understanding. Most of the time, people who live with health conditions don’t expect their boss to move mountains or make major exceptions for them. We just want to be seen as humans, not as cogs in the machine.

There are many ways employers can help their staff members who live with physical and mental health conditions feel seen and understood, and most of them don’t cost a dime. For example, my company allows all employees to flex up to three hours in a single workday without using any sick time. This flexibility can make a world of difference for people who live with health conditions because it lets them work around pain flare-ups or other issues they may encounter. It also allows people to go to doctor’s appointments without burning an entire sick day, especially when some appointments only last 30 to 60 minutes.

In addition to this schedule flexibility, my employer has separated out our vacation time and sick time, which is a big deal. Instead of everything falling into a single bucket, I get an entire week of sick time plus three weeks of paid vacation I can take each year. By dividing out the time, I can take a sick day without worrying about how that will impact my summer vacation plans or spring break travels with my children. While I can absolutely also use my vacation time for illness if needed, I think offering two separate types of paid leave benefits people who live with health conditions because it sends the message that they still deserve a vacation even if they sometimes need to take a day off due to their health.

Since I work remotely, I have the ability to work from any location in my house. While I prefer using my home office when I can, I like that the flexibility exists for me to work from the couch or the bed on days when I need to. While there are obviously some industries where remote work isn’t possible, there are lots of times when a hybrid or remote option can be offered, even if it’s just for days when people need to stay home for their health.

My company also offers up to $250 of home office expenses per employee each year. While these funds can be used for things like Post-It Notes and pens, they can also be utilized to buy adaptive furniture or disability-accommodating equipment. This little bit of money goes a long way in helping employees who live with health conditions set themselves up for success within the office.

Most importantly, though, my boss never makes me feel guilty or ashamed of my health conditions — even when they impact my ability to work. I have never endured a lecture about deadlines, and my boss has never once questioned if I was “faking it” when I tell her I need to flex my hours or take the day off to deal with a migraine attack. Instead, I’ve been told to “rest up” because my “health comes first.” It’s that empathy and understanding that makes me feel like I matter to this company and, more importantly, my boss.

People who live with health conditions aren’t asking for employers to pull out the red carpet or offer grand gestures to help us out. All we need is a little flexibility and some understanding so we can show you just how capable and worthy we are.

Getty image by MoMo Productions.

Originally published: March 29, 2022
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