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Build Your Career Work-Life Balance

5 Ways to Manage Your Chronic Illness at Work

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

When you deal with regular pain or distress in the form of a chronic illness, it has a significant impact on your daily life. You can't leave your symptoms at the door when you walk into the workplace, so if you struggle with a physical or mental chronic condition, it's important to start a conversation about it with your employer.

There's no shame in having an illness, and if you do have one, you're certainly not alone: In 2012, about half of adults had one or more chronic illnesses, and 1 in 4 adults had two or more, according to the CDC.

Your health is a top priority, and it's important to handle these situations with care when discussing them with your supervisor or colleagues. Experts explain how to manage your chronic illness in the workplace while still maintaining a high level of performance. [Think your job is making you sick? Learn more about workplace stress.]

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, senior director of patient services 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.

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, advises to be aware of and own 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 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."

"It's very important for people to balance between work requirements and their mental health," added Russinova. If you put too much emphasis on work, your overall health may fail.

Amber Nicole, a blogger who struggles with multiple chronic illnesses, said she has found that the best way to manage her conditions is to treat them as a priority.

"I consider disease management part of my critical job responsibilities," she said. "A doctor appointment is just as important as a meeting with a customer. I must be as healthy as I can be so that I can do the best job that I can do."

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. You might even consider confiding in a co-worker.

"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 of what you disclose, how much you disclose and who you disclose it to. Specifically for 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."

However, there's no right or wrong – and this is an independent choice.

"It's a very delicate, very sensitive topic," Russinova added.

If you expect your illness is going to conflict with your work schedule or responsibilities, have the respect to alert your employer.

"Employers do appreciate knowing as soon as possible so that 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 out as soon as you anticipate issues, rather than waiting until the last minute. 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 my disease begins to flare, there is a different protocol that must be followed in order to save my life," said Amber Nicole. "I view the explanation similar to an emergency evacuation protocol or a fire drill. You hope that you never have to use it, but you know it's there and set in place if the need arises. This is an issue of safety."

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

If any issues arise with employers, you can go to HR or the ADA.

"It's recommended that you work within the bounds of your employer at first, and then if you're unhappy, certainly the ADA is a great resource to help you figure out if you have a case, if you're being discriminated against or maybe helping you go about it a different way that you haven't thought of," said Collins.

Sammi Caramela

Sammi Caramela has always loved words. When she isn't working as a Purch B2B 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.