5 Tips for Navigating Chronic Illness in the Workplace
How to manage your health while pursuing your career goals
Reviewed by: Aaron Braverman, LCSW-S, and Léorah Freeman, MD, PhD
Written by: Lauren Schneider
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 60% of adults in the United States have one or more chronic illnesses, which are conditions that persist for a year or longer and require ongoing medical attention or limit one’s ability to perform everyday activities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects workers from discrimination based on disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees dealing with documented disabilities or chronic illnesses. Despite this federal protection granted by law, navigating the workplace with a chronic condition can be challenging.
UT Health Austin clinicians share five tips for overcoming these challenges and pursuing a fulfilling career.
1. Stay in Touch With Yourself
After being diagnosed with a chronic illness, the uncertainty about what it means for your future, particularly regarding your ability to work, can be overwhelming.
“Avoid making rash decisions about your employment based on the strong emotions you may feel as you come to terms with your diagnosis or first experience symptoms,” shares Léorah Freeman, MD, PhD, a neurologist in the Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center within UT Health Austin’s Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences. “I like to remind my patients that multiple sclerosis affects each person differently. Some people may be able to continue with full-time employment while others may not.”
“You really need to know yourself and how your symptoms impact you in the workplace,” continues Dr. Freeman. “One of the main challenges patients face is the ‘invisible disability’ of fatigue, where it may require a lot more effort to perform the same amount of work. We invite patients to wait to have a treatment plan in place before making long-term career decisions, as their symptoms will change both from the treatment and from the natural progression of their condition.”
2. Communicate Your Needs
Effectively communicating how your symptoms affect your work empowers you to advocate for yourself within the workplace.
“It is important to let your employer know if you need accommodations,” shares Aaron Braverman, a licensed clinical social worker in UT Health Austin’s Post-COVID-19 Program and member of UT Health Austin’s Integrated Behavioral Health care team. “If your work is impacted by your illness and you do not have accommodations in place, your employer can take disciplinary action against you for poor performance.”
“The most effective way to seek accommodations from an employer would be to put your request in writing and mention that you are asking for workplace accommodations under the ADA,” continues Braverman. “Speaking to a healthcare provider about how your symptoms affect your daily life can help ensure that this information is documented in your medical record to support an accommodations request.”
Common workplace accommodations include:
- Assistive technologies
- Breaks during the workday
- Changes to the work environment, such as desk location
- Flexible work arrangements
- Modified job duties
- Reassignment to another position
“Be as specific as possible about what you need, and clarify to your employer that you may need to modify your request in the future,” advises Braverman. “Be sure to check in with yourself and your employer regularly as you adjust to your new accommodations.”
Keep in mind that not every request for accommodations may be granted. According to the ADA, employers are not required to provide an accommodation that would place an undue burden on time and resources in the place of employment.
“Oftentimes, accommodations involve a compromise between what an employer is willing to offer and what the employee needs to perform their job,” explains Braverman.
<br>3. Build a Support System
Managing a chronic condition while navigating the complexities of the workplace is hardly a trivial feat. At the national level, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers guidance around ADA compliance for workers and employers.
Additionally, having a support system in place can contribute to your success. “Build a community around yourself by engaging openly with your spouse, family members, and friends,” recommends Dr. Freeman. “Leaning on this network will help provide you with the support you need to fully engage in the activities that matter most to you, including your work.”
At UT Health Austin, social workers offer guidance and support by working with patients as a part of their care team to develop a care plan that meets their unique needs. “A social worker can help you work through any mental and behavioral health challenges and navigate any hardships that may be affecting your health or treatment,” explains Braverman.
<br>4. Maintain Work-Life Balance
Creating boundaries between work and your personal life is essential. Engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment, whether it’s pursuing hobbies, spending quality time with loved ones, or simply taking moments for self-care, can contribute to your overall well-being.
“Participating in rewarding activities outside of work is crucial for individuals dealing with chronic conditions,” says Braverman. “For patients with long COVID or other chronic conditions that cause fatigue, it is important to save some energy for activities. Establishing a routine that allows for breaks and relaxation can help prevent burnout and ensure that energy is distributed effectively.”
Find out how a weekly virtual workshop helped patients with long COVID foster creativity and a sense of community.
<br>5. Be Kind to Yourself
Balancing career goals and personal needs is a continual challenge, especially for individuals with chronic illnesses. “Be patient and practice self-compassion as you figure out what works best for you,” advises Braverman.
“You should not be ashamed of your condition or your symptoms,” adds Dr. Freeman. “Cultivate a deep knowledge of your inner dignity and recognize that as someone living with different abilities, you bring unique experiences to the table that can promote empathy and understanding within your community and workplace.”