How To Cope With Chronic Illness on the Job
I've worked with people who have a chronic illness, and I even have one myself -- migraine headaches. The thing about chronic illness is that you never know when you're going to have a bad day. If that were the case, it would be much easier to plan around. You could say to yourself: "Oops...looks like Oct. 21 a migraine is going to hit like a sledgehammer. I'll need to get everything that day rescheduled so I can fall into bed in a dark room for several hours."
A recent story I did for Gannett/USAToday will hopefully make us all realize that chronic illness is all around us, but not something that has to destroy careers. Here's the story I did...
Anyone who has gone to work while suffering from the flu or a headache knows how miserable it is trying to get anything done.
Usually, it helps to know that your ailment is temporary.
But what happens when you feel lousy nearly every day or you're in pain most of the time? How do you get a job done in that condition?
That's a dilemma those with a chronic illness have to deal with all the time.
Rosalind Joffe, an executive coach who specializes in helping people with chronic illnesses, says that whether it's asthma, allergies, cancer, diabetes, or a injury or ailment that causes pain, chances are good that you or someone in a cubicle near you is dealing with such an issue.
Calling herself "an autoimmune-disease poster child," Joffe has had a successful career even while managing health challenges such as multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis. She started her own coaching business 15 years ago and has counseled others on mapping out a successful career while confronting health issues.
"One of the biggest concerns is that many clients of mine believe their co-workers or bosses must think they're not up to the work or they're not doing the work they should be doing," Joffe says.
In that case, Joffe has her client create a self-assessment to discover whether the person's performance is dropping off because of the chronic illness or whether something else is at play.
With the demands on workers to increase productivity in a struggling economy, it may be that a work-performance issue is simply a matter of having more to do than ever before.
"I tell my clients: 'Remember to look around and realize you're not the only one suffering,' " she says.
Employees with chronic illness may decide to inform their colleagues or bosses of their health issues when they believe that their symptoms or doctors' appointments are getting in the way of regular work duties, Joffe says. It's a mistake to think that others will figure out on their own what is wrong.
"People you work with won't think you're ill. It's the last thing they'll think of," she says. "They might think, 'Oh, she's just a bad worker,' or 'She's getting old,' or 'She's looking for another job.' "
But avoiding a conversation on what is affecting your job performance "really is the elephant in the room," says Joffe, author of Women, Work and Autoimmune Disease.
If you decide to tell colleagues or your boss about your chronic illness or pain, Joffe suggests you should:
• Let the other person know that you're living with the pain or illness and that you've got it under control.
"Tell them they don't have to worry about you," Joffe says. "You want to normalize it."
• Explain how the pain or illness might affect you and what it might mean for your job.
If you have migraine headaches, set up someone to cover for you when you're not feeling well. Or help others understand that the problems with your condition may come and go; some days you may feel fine while others will be a struggle.
The unpredictability of a chronic illness is something you — and your colleagues — will learn to deal with, she says.
• Convey through your tone of voice that you're OK.
"Let them know it's not a tragedy, and you don't think of it as a tragedy," Joffe says.
• Give them permission to ask about your illness — or not.
"People need to know whether you want to talk about it and ask you from time to time how you're doing, and if you're capable of doing the work," Joffe says. "Or, let them know you just want to do your job and would rather not discuss it."
• Use your emotional intelligence. If you work with a jerk, chances are this person will be a jerk about your illness as well.
Don't feel obligated to tell everyone if you think some people won't handle the news well.