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5 Ways to Manage Your Chronic Illness at Work

5 Ways to Manage Your Chronic Illness at Work
Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock

Chronic illnesses are more common than many realize, yet much of society is afraid or discouraged to speak up about their own ailments – especially at work. Because of this, you might avoid sharing the details of your illness or disorder with your boss, but this can put both your career and well-being at risk.

Your health should be your priority, which is why it's important to handle these situations with care when discussing them with a supervisor or colleagues. Despite your ailment, you can still maintain a high level of performance in the workplace if you learn how to manage your symptoms and listen to your body. Experts and patients with chronic illnesses shared tips on how to do just that.

Your illness is a reality that you need to deal with, and you shouldn't deny it just because you're at work. If you're experiencing symptoms, acknowledge and confront them with care, rather than working until you crash.

You need to be honest with yourself, physically and emotionally. Many people are afraid of losing their job, don't know their rights or can't keep up, according to Kelli Collins, vice president of patient engagement at the National Kidney Foundation. Pushing yourself too far and putting your health at risk will only hurt you in the long run. It's crucial to listen to your body and slow down when necessary.

For instance, Jean H. Paldan, founder and CEO of Rare Form New Media, was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome after an emergency appendectomy two years ago. At first, this had a negative impact on her business because she couldn't dedicate as much time and energy as before. Paldan has learned to accept the condition and has prioritized her health with her business.

"I work more from home, and the rest of the staff take most of the meetings," she said. "It's not how I want it, but it's what needed to happen for me to be able to keep working as much as I can until a time that I feel better."

Zlatka Russinova, Ph.D. and research associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the Boston University Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, advised being mindful of your vulnerabilities. It's common for people to experience challenges in the workplace when dealing with a chronic illness, so addressing your vulnerabilities and channeling your "toolbox" of strategies will help you.

Many people put work before their health, but that shouldn't even be an option. Your condition doesn't mean you can't thrive in your career, but you need to take care of yourself to do so.

"We've seen folks who become [too] physically or emotionally unable to do the work but are scared to talk with their employer about that," said Collins. "On the other side, there's people who just power through and don't want to let any balls drop and then crash because it's just too much."

Pushing yourself too hard can result in poor quality work and health risks, neither of which are worth proving a point to yourself or your employer. You have a legitimate reason to slow down – don't ignore it. Find a healthy way to get some work done without exhausting your body or mind.

You don't need to tell anyone about your condition unless you want to. However, depending on the severity of it, you may wish to disclose the information to your boss, especially if it interferes with your job.

"Part of the challenge an employee faces at the outset of an illness is determining what to share with their employer," said Thomas O'Brien, disability and insurance attorney for The Law Firm of O'Brien & Feiler. "Some employees may be fearful of being fired outright (especially in at-will employment states). As such, it would be wise for an employee to consider the accommodations that may be needed in the immediate and long term before having this conversation."

O'Brien recommended disclosing the diagnosis with a supervisor first, then involving HR after to avoid any unwanted frustrations or miscommunications. Ultimately, it's your choice with whom you speak to about your illness. For instance, you might consider confiding in a co-worker you trust.

"It depends on your work environment and how comfortable you feel with people," said Collins. "Sometimes it's a nice means of support. These are people you probably see more than your family some weeks. If there are folks that you work with that are comrades, I think it's a nice way to be supported and for people to understand if they are seeing changes in your schedule."

You want to be mindful, however, of what you disclose, how much you disclose, and whom you disclose it to – specifically with mental health issues. "There is psychiatric stigma and prejudice and discrimination," according to Russinova. "Though there are increasing efforts to deal with [and decrease] public stigma ... it's still there."

There really is no right or wrong – this is an independent choice that should be made while weighing the effects. Some people are more open than others, and that's okay. Focus on what is best for you.

If you expect your illness will conflict with your work schedule or responsibilities, alert your employer ahead of time.

"Employers do appreciate knowing as soon as possible so they can plan for that," said Collins. From there, your manager can understand your limitations and make accommodations.

Russinova added that you should prepare for days that you will not be able to work, rather than waiting until the last minute and then notifying your supervisor. You should also prepare a plan that you and your employer can follow if you unexpectedly need time off to deal with your illness.

"If an employee expects the illness to require regular physician appointments, then absences should be discussed," added O'Brien "If there will be bad days or good days, then uncertainty should be discussed. If specific workstation accommodations are needed, those should be discussed, but there is not the need to discuss sensitive particulars with an employer unless the employee is comfortable doing so."

As an employee with a chronic health condition, you have the right to request reasonable accommodations when needed, like flexibility, extra feedback or supervision time, additional instructions on assignments and, most importantly, support from your company, said Russinova. Know your rights, and don't be afraid to exercise them.

If issues arise with employers, you can go to HR or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to O'Brien, the ADA covers employers with more than 15 employees and requires them to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, so long as they do not cause undue hardship to the employer.

If you feel you're being discriminated against or have a case against your employer, don't hesitate to reach out to the ADA. However, there's a way to go about it without tarnishing your professional relationships.

"Use the ADA as a collaborative tool, not a sword," said O'Brien. "Approaching an employer with threats of ADA action is not advisable when attempting to continue employment."

Overall, look out for yourself. Your illness does not limit what you deserve, nor does it give anyone grounds for mistreatment.

Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Sammi Caramela

Sammi Caramela has always loved words. When she isn't working as a Business News Daily and Business.com staff writer, she's writing (and furiously editing) her first novel, reading a YA book with a third cup of coffee, or attending local pop-punk concerts. The only time Sammi doesn't play it safe is when she's writing. Reach her by email, or check out her blog at sammisays.org.