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Working Through It
6 Ways to Make Working With Chronic Illness a Little More Manageable
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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Working with a chronic illness can be anxiety-provoking, painful and mentally and physically exhausting. Just getting through the workday may sometimes feel like an insurmountable challenge. It can be especially jarring to face work if your illness is new, and you’re dealing obstacles you didn’t encounter on the job and beyond previously.

Tasks that came easily to you in the past may be extremely difficult to accomplish. Perhaps you even find it’s hard to get to work and make it through the week. Sometimes, you wonder if it’s even possible to keep your full-time job while dealing with the physical and psychological pain of having a chronic illness.

There’s no doubt that working with a chronic illness is incredibly challenging. Depending on the nature and severity of your condition, it can impact many (perhaps all) facets of your life. However, many people do manage to keep full-time jobs while living with these conditions. How do they do it? Here are some tips.

How to deal with a chronic illness while working

• Know yourself and your limits.

It’s important to recognize that your illness is real and will most likely impact your job. Rather than trying to sweep your symptoms under the rug, acknowledge them and be honest about how they’re impacting your life. If you’re overdoing it at work, you need to listen to your body rather than cause yourself further harm by straining too hard. 

• Explain the situation to your manager and human resources (HR).

Don’t worry about oversharing or divulging too many details about your chronic illness to your employer. If it’s something that could impact your work, certain people need to know. It’s important to have documentation about your illness in case any issues related to it arise down the line. In addition to telling your manager, you should also inform an HR representative so you can document the details and request accommodations (if need be) through the proper channels. And if you do need accommodations, be clear on what they should look like. For example, you might request the opportunity to work from home some days.

• Share details about your illness only if you are comfortable with doing so.

If you’re uncomfortable disclosing details of your condition to others, there’s no need to do so. That’s even true of sharing the information with your boss, although it might be necessary for her to know if it will interfere with your job. You certainly don’t need to tell your coworkers unless you want to. If a colleague asks why you’re receiving certain accommodations, you’re not obligated to explain.

Some people may find that it’s helpful to have the support of coworkers and choose to disclose details for this reason. Your colleagues may benefit from you educating them about your illness and be more willing and able to help you with tasks or even just listen. Still, sharing is a personal choice, and you should only do so if you’re comfortable with it. 

• Know your rights.

As discussed above, you’re allowed to request accommodations as a person with a chronic illness. Some conditions are also protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADC), so if you think your organization has violated this law, you should report the issue to your employer first and seek legal counsel second if need be. 

Many employees are entitled to a certain amount of unpaid leave for illnesses under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Generally speaking, private employers with at least 50 employees must comply with FMLA, and you must have worked with your employer for at least 12 months and 1,250 hours to be protected by it. 

• Put your health first. 

Work is important, but your health is more important. Prioritize your health in all cases. Pushing yourself too hard will put your body jeopardy. Plus, your work is likely to suffer if you’re suffering physically since you’re probably preoccupied.

That might mean leaving early on occasion or using your sick days, even when it doesn’t seem convenient for your team. (It’s also a good idea to thoroughly review your organization’s policies regarding sick leave and paid time off.) It’s important to recognize that your chronic illness will probably impact your work and schedule.

• Prioritize self-care.

Self-care is important for everyone, but it’s essential for people with chronic illnesses. This is especially true after a long day at the office. Whatever helps you relax or recover — do that. It might be yoga, meditation, reading a book, watching TV, taking a nap or a walk or even just lying down.

Resources and where to find help

While coping and working with a chronic illness can be extremely challenging, there is support. Check out these resources for help. 

American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)

Find resources such as clinical trials, news, inspiration and tools for coping with your chronic illness through the ACPA. The organization also offers information about increasing pain awareness, such as Pain Awareness Toolkits. 

 The Chronic Illness Workbook: Strategies and Solutions for Taking Back Your Life

By Patricia A. Fennell 

In this book, Fennell, a licensed social worker, uses her experience working with patients with chronic illnesses to offer research-backed strategies for coping with the physical, psychological, social and economic aspects of having these conditions.

Healing Well

Healing Well offers blogs, videos, a newsletter, articles and other resources that provide advice and support for people living with chronic illnesses. Topics include coping with anxiety and sleeping strategies for people with chronic illnesses. You’ll also find a supportive community through the website, helping you connect with others coping with similar challenges.

Communities to join

Looking to communicate with and offer and receive support from other people with chronic illnesses? These communities facilitate connections and discussions with people facing similar obstacles and challenges at work and in life.

American Chronic Pain Association support groups

Healing Well Community

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