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How Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Can Affect People's Ability to Work

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Work. A word that triggers mixed reactions. It can cause angst and stress or pride and reward. It’s necessary to pay the bills and can cost us our health. Work can be a place to connect with like-minded people, and a place to socialize.

Imagine for a moment that you couldn’t work more than 20 hours per week.

It sounds like a real vacation, doesn’t it?! Full-time workers (40+ hours) might be thinking, “Yesssss,” right now. I would be, if I was still working full-time!

Here’s the thing though.

For people with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), or other chronic illnesses, being forced to work part-time is no vacation. Here’s why.

The difference is a matter of:

1. Want and need.

2. Short term and long term.

3. Choice and requirement.

Wanting to work 20 hours per week may be seen as a “reward” by the employee and may not result in a loss of income. Vacation ends when you want it to. It’s not always taken for enjoyment, but it’s a choice that the employee makes.

Needing to work part-time is out of necessity. There’s a significant loss of income. There’s no end in sight. It’s required for health reasons and not by choice.

For people with MCS, work can be a struggle that sends a ripple effect on all of life.

Many people diagnosed with severe MCS are unable to work full-time, if at all. They often lose their homes, vehicles, support network, social network and family contact.

The work restrictions that accompany MCS can have a real life-changing impact, and there are a few of the ways people with MCS can be affected.

Income for people with MCS can become very limited. Working part-time impacts the number of hours worked, and it also can impact the dollar amount paid per hour. Imagine trying to support a family while earning an annual income comparable to a teenager.

To further complicate matters, the expense of living with MCS can be costly. Since people with MCS are significantly affected by chemicals found in food, clothing, appliances, furniture, household products, cleaners, personal care products, fragrances, textiles (bedding, towels, etc.), building products, and more, they’re advised to buy products that have the least amount of chemicals possible.

Examples of this are:

1. Buying organic and fresh food.

2. Clothing, furniture and textiles made from natural materials, natural dyes and no finishes.

3. Household products that are made from ceramic or solid hardwood with zero (or low) volatile organic compound finishes, and that are as chemical free as possible.

4. Avoiding products such as soaps, perfumes, colognes, lotions, shampoos and conditioner that are made with fragrances or other harmful chemicals.

People with MCS often use air filters and water filters to filter chemicals commonly found in indoor air and water supplies. That alone can add a few thousand dollars per year.

But the dollars and cents is just one impact of having to work less.

It can pack a punch to a person’s self-confidence. One of the strategies that people with MCS have employed in order to continue working is to work from home – in a safe environment that is created especially for the person with MCS. Working from home (or remotely) is a relatively new concept in the U.S. Some employers have embraced this work style and make every effort to include the employee that is working remotely. And some employers are still getting the hang of it.

Feedback, inclusion in team meetings, and day-to-day communication are sometimes lost when working from home. This can feel isolating and make the person with MCS feel like they are not important to the company or team.

On a related note, it can impact the social dynamics.

Similar to the work from home model being new to employers, it’s new to employees too. It can be tough to remember that the full team includes those working from home.

Plus, it can be difficult for the person with MCS to attend if the geographic distance is too far (exposure to vehicle exhaust, road construction debris that can affect people with MCS while driving).

And, it can be difficult for people with MCS to be in a public place in general – think about the amount of people with perfumes, colognes, new products off-gassing, wifi spots, etc. that are found in an office and then multiply that by two, three or four times. These types of environments can quickly affect the health of people with MCS.

These factors can cause a decline in socialization for the person with MCS.

The “water cooler” conversation becomes five seconds over the phone instead of five minutes in person. As a result, relationship building (and sustaining) becomes more difficult. And frankly, becomes pretty isolating.

While working part-time may sound like a vacation, the effects can be financially, professionally and socially devastating. It’s important that employers, family and friends of people with MCS understand the impact that this reduction in income has and that restricted work requirements are not a vacation. It’s not the first choice for people with MCS. And it’s stressful to endure the impact that working restricted hours brings.

Families and friends of people with MCS can be helpful by being supportive. Here are a few strategies to consider.

1. Understand this is not a vacation. Have a soulful understanding that the person with MCS is not choosing to reduce their work hours for fun – it’s a requirement.

2. Clearly give emotional support. Be sure that the person with MCS knows you are here to support them by listening, offering suggestions and helping emotionally while they are going through the difficult life-changes that result from lower income earnings. Don’t assume they know you’re being supportive. Specifically state over and over that you support them. Not to the point of being insincere, of course, but mention it more than once. Reinforcement of your support is a good thing.

3. Align actions with words. It’s one thing to say you support the person with MCS and it’s another thing to show it. Take action to show your support by actively listening and reading about MCS on your own to get a better understanding. Hold brainstorming or mind mapping sessions to work through sticking points that the person with MCS may encounter along the way.

4. Understand MCS. Do a little research yourself to understand MCS better and the significant impact it can make on people’s lives. A word of caution, there are websites that state MCS is a mental health issue and not a physical health issue. These websites are not accurate. Please don’t tell your friend, co-worker or family member that their MCS is all mental – it’s not, and you will alienate them in a blink.

5. Be accepting. Accept that the person with MCS is doing the best that they know how. The entire topic of MCS illness has an impact on all facets of life (beyond those we’ve discussed here) and it can be overwhelming. Be a critical thinker and ask questions to understand better, and also be accepting of the person with MCS and the information they are providing to you.

6. Help find remote jobs. Identify companies that may be a good fit for people with MCS. Or job postings that allow people to work from home. Ask around your office and tell friends and family to keep their ears and eyes open for these types of jobs too. Approximately 35 percent of jobs are found by word-of-mouth , which can be a real asset to those with MCS!

MCS, especially severe MCS, is a life-changing illness that impacts a person’s ability to work, socialize and maintain a healthy level of self confidence. Be supportive by believing MCS is real, giving emotional support through words and actions, gaining a better understanding of MCS, and helping the person with MCS to find jobs that they can do from home and utilize their strengths.

Your support and efforts might help soften the ripple effect that MCS can have on their life.

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Getty image by eternalcreative

Originally published: February 8, 2018
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